When I saw Pulp Fiction back in 1994, I was convinced that its brand of daring, post-modern intelligence and sheer, movie-crazed enthusiasm would usher in a new era of cinema -- a golden age of joyous, raucous movies that would be alive in new and exciting ways. I once believed in the tooth fairy as well. What actually happened is what I should have expected: a tidal wave of half-baked knockoffs, lame attempts to copy the formula behind Pulp Fiction instead of the thought process that made it possible.
Someone should come up with a name for this Quentin Tarantino rip-off subgenre of action films, and it should be something that takes into account the fact that there have been good ones (Bound, Go, Snatch, Amores Perros), as well as bad ones (Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead, 2 Days in the Valley, 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag, Knockaround Guys). It should also take into account that these films have kept coming more than a decade past the original -- much longer even than the Star Wars knockoffs lasted. In the past year or two, we've seen Domino, Running Scared, Lucky Number Slevin and now Smokin' Aces, from director Joe Carnahan.
Carnahan is a repeat offender, having already pumped out two mediocre crime films, but even worse is that he appears to be copying from a copy; his work more closely resembles Guy Ritchie's than Tarantino's. In 1998, Ritchie released Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, while Carnahan made Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane -- pretty easy to get those two titles mixed up. Carnahan made Narc (2002) next, deliberately copying the gritty style of 1970s cop flicks like The French Connection, but without understanding how those films were rooted in reality. Since he overlooked Ritchie's Snatch (2000), he has now taken a step backwards to catch up to it.
Smokin' Aces begins, like Snatch, by introducing its various cleverly-named characters with their own frozen title cards. Expositional dialogue -- and plenty of it -- lets us know that someone has taken out a contract on Buddy 'Aces' Israel (Jeremy Piven), and that whoever gets to him is supposed to cut out his heart. We also discover that Buddy is a popular Las Vegas magician who fancies himself a mobster, dabbling in shady behind-the-scenes dealings, and getting too close to piles of drugs and money. Ultimately, it doesn't really matter who wants Buddy dead or why; he's the MacGuffin so that all our other colorful characters can assemble.
Buddy flees to a fancy Tahoe hotel and takes over the top floor, surrounded by guards and secrecy. Several contract killers, cops, agents and bail bondsmen figure out where he is and begin their attempts to get inside. Among the roster we have Georgia Sykes (Alicia Keys) and Sharice Watters (Taraji P. Henson, an almost Oscar-nominee for Hustle & Flow), two badass homegirls who operate as a team; Georgia poses as a hooker while Sharice sets up in an opposite building with the biggest gun I've ever seen on film: a Barrett .50 Caliber Rifle, which blows holes through buildings and knocks its victims backwards ten or twelve feet.
To be honest, I'd like to see a whole movie about Georgia and Sharice, but the sum total of their scenes in Smokin' Aces leaves a lot to be desired. Other characters don't fare quite as well. We get three Nazi punk skinhead idiots called the "Tremor brothers," (played by Chris Pine, Kevin Durand and Maury Sterling) whose smash-and-grab killing technique doesn't quite mesh with a stealth job like this one. I forget who the other killers are, but we can add in a couple of FBI agents (Ryan Reynolds and Ray Liotta) to the mix, and Ben Affleck plays one of three bail bondsmen. Jason Bateman turns up in the most Tarantino-esque sequence, playing some kind of bookie who is lounging around in his underwear with a giant rabbit costume head sitting on a nearby table.
I could go on listing actors, but it's time to get to the action. The biggest problem with Smokin' Aces is that, with all these different misfits descending upon the hotel in the same afternoon, Carnahan totally fails to juggle the time line correctly. Georgia winds up waiting for the elevator for what seems like an eternity, and the Tremor brothers wind up riding the same elevator for the same amount of time (the building just isn't that tall). Carnahan cuts away to other plot threads and keeps cutting back with no real progress. In another sequence, Buddy's lawyer (Curtis Armstrong) calls him with some dire news, but some 20 minutes after he has actually received the news himself.
In the final hour, Smokin' Aces simply tries too hard, like Ryan Reynolds attempting to imitate the FBI hand signals he's seen in other movies. (The ultimate example involves several intolerable scenes of a hyperactive kid wearing a karate uniform.) If this is Carnahan's version of Snatch, let's all pray he doesn't attempt an American version of Ritchie's follow-up, Swept Away (2002).