Politics & Policy

Ace in the (Moral) Hole

Smokin' Aces is a losing hand.

Late in Smokin’ Aces, a gun-packing, blood-covered neo-Nazi redneck who spends most of the movie costumed in highly decorated bondage wear looks at a man who he’d earlier attempted to kill and, with a sort of apathetic sincerity, apologizes, offering as an excuse, “S*** gets wild and crazy. Fate just up and f***s you for no good reason.” Which is pretty much exactly how I felt after watching the movie. Director Joe Carnahan’s crime romp is a vapid, degenerate foray into wanton nihilism, a movie steeped in senseless, joyless bloodletting, and vulgarity. Despite stacking the deck with gobs of attitude, a madcap plot, and a cast of outrageous rogues, it’s a decidedly losing hand.

Aces puts on its best poker face and tries to sell itself as a jaunty, overstuffed crime lark along the lines Lock, Stock and Two Smokin’ Barrels or a pulpier Ocean’s 11. In now-typical fashion for these sorts of high-strung gangster romps, it goes all in, juggling a cast of zany cops, hare-brained criminals, and other assorted oddballs, including, but not limited to: a team of ghetto-slang slinging lesbian hitwomen, an obnoxious, Ritalin-addicted, karate-chopping ten year old, the aforementioned bondage-wear clad neo-Nazi redneck, a cross-dressing sleazebag lawyer, and Ben Affleck, who sleazes his way through the picture as a grizzled bail bondsman sporting a leather golf cap and a handlebar mustache. Carnahan aimed to populate his movie with hyperactive cartoon cronies, or maybe even gussied up stock characters, but his panoply of eccentric weirdos doesn’t even have the depth of a caricature. Instead, this cast of thugs seems to have been pieced together from a scrap heap of pointless tics and twitches. They’re not people, just gaudy game pieces that Carnahan choreographs in increasingly grotesque displays of ultraviolence.

Not content merely to stuff his movie with unlikable goons, Carnahan also tries to distract viewers from his film’s emptiness with excessively elaborate plot machinations. The film starts with a flurry of interlocking monologues — or maybe they should be called “mumblelogues” considering the general lack of clear pronunciation on the part of any of the performers — that spew out the requisite backstory to kick off the action. There’s something about a million dollar hit put out on a mob informant who also happens to be a coke-addicted, hedonistic, megastar Vegas magician named Israel (Jeremy Piven, who owns every scene he’s in and is the film’s sole saving grace), and another something about a stuffed-away FBI case involving a murdered agent and radical plastic surgery. But untangling this plot thicket is like trying to slog through a Jimmy Carter book on the Middle East: It may be possible, but it’s not worth it, and it’ll only make you angry.

Not that it matters whether you’ve got any clue what all the mumbling is about; Andy Garcia, as an FBI bigshot, sums it all up in the last line of the exposition: “No former witness to the mob has ever been as important as Buddy ‘Aces’ Israel.” And then off everyone goes to the Lake Tahoe hotel where Israel is holed up: cops, killers, and sundry lowlifes, all with mayhem on their minds. Paths cross, bullets fly, a geyser of profanity is unleashed in every conversation, and murder — of the most grisly and blood-soaked kind — is the order of the day. None of the story details matter; it’s all about who lives, who dies, who’s got the hippest trash-talk, and who can be the most brazenly repulsive before the last hand is dealt. The movie is an amoral mess, start to finish.

Carnahan shoots the action with an erratic, insistent buzz, all herky-jerky cuts and sugar-addled whips and pans. Much of the film is shot in extreme close-up, as if some producer insisted the film needed to be “in your face” and Carnahan took the suggestion literally. The style of the film rather resembles the previously noted vulgarity spewing, karate-chopping ten year old: Like the kid, the visual tricks add nothing, but they’re hyperactive and obnoxious.

This is all the more disappointing coming from Carnahan. His debut picture, Narc, a harrowing, dour cop flick of the sort that one inevitably ends up describing as “gritty,” gracefully depicted the familial conflicts, sacrifices, and self-deception required by undercover drug cops. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a carefully paced, remorseful look at how a violent, deceit-filled work life inevitably boils into a similar situation at home.

With Aces, Carnahan has ditched the somber thoughtfulness of his first film for a klutzy imitation of the giddy, violent antics popularized by directors like Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez. But Carnahan can recreate neither the air of blissfully guilt-free cartoon noir in Rodriguez’s Sin City nor the tempest of stylistic acrobatics and pop referentiality of Tarantino’s Kill Bill. Instead, he adopts a half-baked imitation of their geek-cool tone, and his pose is as obvious as a nerdy outcast trying to fit in at a party full of hipsters.

Smokin’ Aces is the type of film that’s commonly billed as a triumph of style over substance, but more accurately, it’s the failure of style in the absence of substance. It can’t even bring itself to celebrate its vapid, violent hedonism. Instead, it just wallows in it — soaking itself and its viewers mindless, exploitative, thug-worshiping violent trash that’s anything but “smokin’.” No, it’s blackened and burnt to an amoral crisp, and it smells every bit as wretched.

 Peter Suderman is associate editor of Doublethink and regularly writes film criticism for NRO. He blogs on film and culture at www.alarm-alarm.com.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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