Somewhere in Joe Carnahan’s SMOKIN’ ACES there is a really good film trying desperately to get out. Several actually. And therein lays the problem. Dashing blithely as he does through several different genres Carnahan shows moxie and a genuine flair for each one: black comedy, gut-wrenching drama, farcical silliness, and a deeply affecting morality tale. It’s a tricky business at best and kudos all around for Carnahan and his cast of players who move effortlessly from one mood to the other. My gripe is that each is so good that it was jarring to be bounced back and forth as the film barreled along lickety-split, turning on a dime into another genre before the audience is quite ready to leave the one in progress.
The film starts with FBI partners and best pals Carruthers (Ray Liotta) and Messner (Ryan Reynolds) on a stakeout. They’re monitoring the last days of a dying Don, the mob kind, and as they banter back and forth about the medicinal wonders of urine, they hear something that doesn’t quite make sense. That would be a reference to a surgeon coupled with a $1 million hit on Buddy “Aces” Israel. That Buddy has ticked someone, or several someones off, is not surprise. He’s a Vegas magician who made friends with the mob and then decided that being a goodfella would be more fun than being a headliner. The problem was that he was not very good at it. The FBI’s problem is that Buddy, secreted away in a Lake Tahoe casino penthouse, is in negotiations to spill everything he knows about the mob to the Feds. The thing that’s puzzling Carruthers, Messner, and their boss (Andy Garcia) is the surgeon reference. There’s no known hit man with that nickname. Not that it matters. Every hitman, hitwoman, and assorted hanger-on in the known world is after Buddy, and the race is on between the good, the bad, and addled as to who will get to him first.
In a neat bit of exposition that plays as anything but, the particulars are laid out by one of the addled, bail bondsmen Ben Affleck, as he shoots pool with his crew. I bring it up because that’s the caliber of writing at work here. As with his previous film, NARC, Carnahan uses the law enforcement guys to effectively get at the grit and the tension of explosive personalities working with the dregs of society. He also nails nihilistic violence played to excellent effect with cartoonish hyperbole using the Tremor Brothers, psycho bad boys given to outbursts of gleeful mayhem and tattoos, both of which mix bad taste with piquant inventiveness. Tossed into the mix are a pair of lovebird hit women (Taraji P. Henson and Alicia Keyes), a neat plot twist, a corpse puppet show with metaphysical overtones, and lawyers who are more of a menace to society than any of the criminals they defend. Or try to.
Carnahan knows what he’s doing with a camera, a script and actors. Casting Jason Bateman in a jumped-up cameo as one of those lawyers with issues that encapsulates both the absurdity and the menace of the premise is a minor flash of genius. The film splashes on the screen with an assured kick-ass energy that does the job, and while it surrenders often to gratuitous violence, it’s rarely for its own sake. There’s some sly commentary going on. The cast is right there with Carnahan, particularly Piven who does ironic self-loathing, cynicism with unexpected depth, one moment contemplating his reflection in rare bout of silent self-awareness, in another, stumbling through the detritus, human and other, of the previous evening’s debauchery and haranguing his perpetually befuddled sidekick with a quick spiel of putdowns. On the opposite end of the scale is Reynolds, who for the most part inhabits the drama/morality tale portion of the story, and does so with equal depth and none of the irony.
In a perfect world, Carnahan would make four different films, one each for each of the moods he went for in SMOKIN’ ACES, and referencing the tone of the others. I’d be first in line to watch the quadruple feature, and later first in line to buy the box set when it came out.