Sometimes, the critics are just wrong. This week, we’re bringing Joe Carnahan’s Smokin’ Aces back from the dead.
Dir: Joe Carnahan
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Ray Liotta, Jeremy Piven, Common, Chris Pine
IMDb rating: 6.6
Metacritic rating: 45
If asked to name the best films of 2006, I might go on to list Pan’s Labyrinth, The Departed, Little Miss Sunshine and maybe Letters from Iwo Jima. One film people wouldn’t expect me to suggest would be Smokin’ Aces. Critics haven’t exactly been kind to Joe Carnahan’s highly-stylised action thriller – it’s been called “morally bankrupt”, “repellent” and, by one very bitter individual, “the poor man’s Guy Ritchie”. But Guy Ritchie never made anything that was this much fun.
The real joy in Smokin’ Aces is to be found in its characters, its style and its grindhouse throwbacks
Jeremy Piven plays Buddy ‘Aces’ Israel, a Vegas showman turned mob snitch. Israel is wanted by a lot of people; the FBI want him to turn state’s evidence and, as a result, a lot of wealthy criminals want him dead. So naturally, a cavalcade of assassins descends on Israel’s high-roller suite for a great big bloody shootout. As you might have guessed, Smokin’ Aces won’t blow you away with its narrative. Carnahan did himself no favours by adding a ludicrous back-story that unravels alongside all the mayhem, before further muddying the waters by actually having the gall to take that story seriously. Never mind that though – the real joy in Smokin’ Aces is to be found in its characters, its style and its grindhouse throwbacks.
Carnahan’s style of direction is frenetic throughout the film; rarely is the same camera angle used twice, some shots last milliseconds, some over a minute. Rather than being a Tarantino copycat, Carnahan blends his own style with the styles employed by directors like Paul McGuigan and Robert Rodriguez, to create something fresh and well-paced. The end result is a film that maintains momentum despite continually jumping between upwards of six points of view.
This kinetic direction makes for a consistently engrossing pace that is matched by a polished aesthetic. Carnahan keeps the picture crisp and grainy, with saturated colours that echo the typically vibrant visuals of the exploitation genre. It’s an edgy tone that acts to emphasise the best feature of the film: its characters.
The key to Smokin’ Aces is that it’s shallow, empty, pointless fun, with a smorgasbord of colourful, entertaining characters
Aside from the dull FBI agents (Reynolds and Liotta), there’s a smorgasbord of colourful characters to watch as they tear one another to pieces. None of them can be considered appealing enough for the viewer to ever invest any emotion in, but all are entertaining enough to keep the audience waiting for every character’s next bit of screen time. Characters like the Tremor brothers – a group of speed addicted, neo-Nazi skinheads who make Rutger Hauer look stable – might lack depth or nuance, but their hugely entertaining screen presence is undeniable.
And that’s the key to Smokin’ Aces: its shallow, empty, pointless fun. The strong supporting cast and energetic direction keep the film moving through every scene. For all the abuse it has received, you’d expect it to be a total mess, a hyper-violent, lazy attempt to replicate Tarantino’s successful style. When you consider the sheer volume of truly forgettable films that make it through the reviewing process with a respectable score, it’s staggering that a film like this, with so many memorable scenes and characters, gets such an unfair rating.
All images: Universal