You can easily imagine the behind-the-camera “creative” team working itself into a frenzy of excitement over the casting possibilities presented by the overindulgently sprawling list of dramatis personae that appear in the bit of the old ultraviolence that is Smokin’ Aces.
“Ooo, ooo, ooo, we’ll get, like, Ray Liotta for that one Fed, and Andy Garcia for that other Fed, and Ben Affleck — tee hee! — for the bail bondsman and” — now they’re doing pee-pee dances lest they wet themselves in their excitement — “that weaselly guy from Entourage, you know, Whatsisname, to play the weaselly guy that everyone wants to kill!”
See, cuz it’s Fun! It’s a Lark! It’ll be like a Big Winking Joke to everyone who loves kick-ass crime movies!
Except it isn’t. Jeremy Piven (the weaselly guy from Entourage) and Liotta and Garcia and Affleck and Alicia Keys and Jason Bateman and Alex Rocco and every other single damn one of the cast of thousands here should have stepped back away from this steaming pile of meaningless, worthless, civilization-in-decline, orgy-of-violence, bread-and-circuses sign of the apocalypse. Though I guess if the world as we know it is coming to an end and we’re about to head into another Dark Ages of rising sea levels and wars over potable water, never mind an end to on-set catering and contractually obligated personal security, you might as well get what you can while the gettin’ is good.
The gettin’ ain’t good for us, though, on the viewer’s end, even as obscene spectacles of completely gratuitous carnage typically go.
It all starts out as an orgy of exposition as too many characters attempt to explain the situation to us, even though it’s not all that hard to grasp. Everybody wants Vegas stage star Buddy “Aces” Israel (Piven): two different branches of the mob want him dead, and the Feds want him alive because he’s gonna snitch on those two different branches of the mob (which is why they want him dead). So the Feds have him holed up in a Tahoe high-roller’s suite, so he is conveniently cornered when a slew of contract killers start showing up in an attempt to off him for the $1 million bounty put up by the mafia.
But it’s not “cool” or “stylish” to be straightforward, so it gets mixed up, spun around, split-screened, snarked up, and roughed up. It’s not confusing or complicated, it only wants to create an air of confusion and complication, as if by way of hiding how simple it actually is. Better to dizzy the audience “intellectually” — ha — before it brings on the bloodbath and the butchery, because then it might all seem smarter than it is.
Writer/director Joe Carnahan made the genuinely clever and affecting Narc back in 2002, so it’s not like he doesn’t know how to do that. What happened to him between then and now? This is an ugly movie in every sense of the word: It plays like a pastiche of mob movies, except it isn’t funny or deprecating or deconstructive. It starts from a dubious high of merely tasteless jokes about semen and rape and descends to something bordering on the completely depraved: a tender murder scene. It mistakes crassness for attitude, half relying on the hope that we’ll see this all as tongue-in-cheek but then asking us to feel sorry for the sleazy Buddy, an oh-so tragic figure caught in the middle, practically Shakespearean in his self-created calamity (not). It thinks its “who is Keyser Soze” ending is a shocker, thinks that even the mere fact that it has a “who is Keyser Soze” ending is shocking, when in truth the “hints” that it dropped that one was coming land like lead balloons.
“Everyone’s gonna leave the theater grinning,” the Affleck character — and I use the word character, as I used the term dramatis personae, completely ironically — promises. He’s referring to his plan to bring the bail-jumping Buddy Israel back to Vegas from his Tahoe hidey-hole, but really, Carnahan wants us to see that as a promise for his film. If one may consider that a rictus of revulsion tinged with a smidgen of relief that it’s over constitutes “grinning,” then I guess we may consider that an accurate prediction.