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SMOKIN' ACES

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Ben Affleck, Jason Bateman, Common, Andy Garcia, Alicia Keys, Ray Liotta, Jeremy Piven, Ryan Reynolds
Director: Joe Carnahan
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Universal
Features: See Review
Length: 109 Minutes
Release Date: April 17, 2007

“He said one million?”

“One million.”

“One million plus the f*ckin’ heart?”

“Plus the heart.”

“And Buddy Israel? Holy sh*t…THESE GUYS WANT HIM BAD.”

Film ****

If you’re going to set out to make a violent, balls-to-the-wall, shamelessly sadistic action comedy, Smokin’ Aces is the absolute best way to do it! Writer/director Joe Carnahan has created one memorably sick, twisted, funny and visually explosive movie made exclusively for those who enjoy sick, twisted, funny and visually explosive movies. Think of last year’s Running Scared, with an added dose of comedy.

The best label I can give the movie is that of a newfound pulp movie classic. That’s right, I think it ranks with the best of Tarantino and other maestros of violent fare. I wouldn’t go so far as to say its up there with any of Scorsese’s work because his films were on a much more serious level, as this film is more about the audacious thrills.

Carnahan, whose last film was the terrific and criminally overlooked Narc, has a wild imagination because he threw everything in his screenplay BUT the kitchen sink. It does have shades of Reservoir Dogs, and is told in a Crash-like interweaving plot structure, and even throws in a twist ending that comes way out of left field, not to mention scenes of violence that are at an extreme Michael Bay-like level. But Carnahan gives the movie a feel that is all its own, and his filmmaking style is another great bonus that movie has going for it.

At the center of the plot is Las Vegas showman Buddy “Aces” Israel (Jeremy Piven), who has become an informant for the FBI in helping to bring down the last leg of the mafia that is residing in sin city. Israel became associated with many notorious figures in Vegas, and his information is vital. But protecting him is about to be severely challenged, as the FBI soon learns that the mob has put out a million dollar contract to the person who brings them his heart on a platter.

Obviously, word of this million dollar hit fee is going to bring out the craziest of the crazies out of the woodwork. It catches the attention of everyone including a bail bondsman (Ben Affleck), a pair of female assassins (Alicia Keys, Taraji P. Henson), and even deadlier characters such as a chameleon-like mercenary with a taste for torture, and three neo Nazi brothers with a taste for…well you will have to see for yourself. Their execution methods are anything but subtle.

Working against these forces are FBI agents Carruthers (Ray Liotta) and Messner (Ryan Reynolds) who, under orders from FBI Deputy Director Locke (Andy Garcia), are ordered to keep Israel alive for testimony. Israel, meanwhile, is hiding in a penthouse suite in Lake Tahoe, with a security force protecting him on the top floor. And the Feds keep pressuring Israel to possibly give up more than his mob associates, which may just increase his problems more than save his life, and his excessive cocaine abuse isn’t helping either.

Once Carnahan sets the story up in a most uncanny way, you can feel the movie building up to a most intense and explosive confrontation of characters, as we see the assorted characters make their way to the same location. And the plot grows even more intense when Israel’s own bodyguard, Ivy (Common), suspects that he and the rest of the entourage may be ratted out as well. It’s one of those great movies where there’s absolutely no telling who’s going to make it out alive.

I don’t want to reveal any more of what happens. All I’ll tell you is that you’re in store for one of the most incredible action sequences in recent memory, in one of the more inspired settings for such a sequence. And it gets a lot darker in the final moments before unleashing one final surprise that really stunned me.

And it doesn’t hurt that the film has one amazing cast to go along for the ride. The standouts are Jeremy Piven, who’s always been a favorite of mine and who I’m convinced plays a tense and strung out snitch better than anyone, and Ryan Reynolds, who shows a side of himself I haven’t seen from him. I enjoy him in his comedies, but his performance here illustrates that he can hit the serious mark too.

Plus, the movie even turns in two impressive acting debuts from two musicians: rapper Common and R&B songstress Alicia Keys. Common is, to me, one of the best to ever grace the rap genre and for his acting debut he is fortunate to have some of the coolest dialogue of the movie. And Ms. Keys exudes a heavy dose of lethal sexiness as a no-nonsense contract killer.

I’d be lying if I said that Smokin’ Aces wasn’t a guy movie. I mean you’ve got the violence, you’ve got the nasty profanity, and you’ve got the gorgeous Alicia Keys in sexy attire. It’s got all the ingredients of a true guys-only flick, but beyond that it’s really a grand piece of action filmmaking, and it also happens to have substance as well.

Smokin’ Aces is as gritty, violent and deliciously tasteless as you could ever hope a single movie to be. But it does illustrate top notch filmmaking for such a genre and it’s proof that Joe Carnahan has more than what it takes to become one of cinema’s newest masters of pulp fiction. Check your guns and ENJOY!

Video ****

This is without question one of the best-looking discs I’ve ever seen from Universal. Right from the beginning, the film incorporates many visual tricks, and the picture is bright and heavy on color throughout, resulting in a visually stunning anamorphic presentation. The style of the movie is enhanced brilliantly in this outstanding presentation. Superb on all accounts.

Audio ****

The 5.1 mix delivers all the bang for your buck and then some. Surround sound is put to explosive use, as every sound element from music playback, dialogue delivery, and the extreme action get the grade A treatment. The sound quality is so amazing you will be very much engulfed in all the action and mayhem. Truly one of the best sounding discs of the year!

Features ***1/2

Quite a terrific extras treatment on this Universal release. There are two commentary tracks; the first with writer/director Joe Carnahan and Editor Robert Frazen, the second with writer/director Joe Carnahan and actors Common, Christopher Holley and Zach Cumer. Also featured are Deleted and Extended Scenes, Outtakes, a Cowboy Ending, and three featurettes; “The Line Up”, “The Big Gun” and “Shoot Em Up: Stunts and Effects”.

Summary:

Smokin’ Aces is brilliantly executed four-star trash, and I mean excellent, excellent trash. It assaults the senses with its extreme qualities in an riveting way. And the execution of the movie is nothing short of amazing. And when too many movies today hold back, this one pushes everything to the extreme with a smile on its face. A pure pulp masterpiece!

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