Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Feb 04, 2007 2:38 pm 
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Cultish misfire still leaves (some) hope of better to come from Carnahan

The huge shoot-out around a big hotel suite that ends Smokin' Aces is a ramped-up version of the finale of Tarantino's True Romance (directed by Tony Scott). The elaborate and preposterous explanation that concludes this new movie is straight out of Brian Singer's puzzler put-on The Usual Suspects. There are numerous homages to the likes of Kitano and Sergio Leone. Carnahan's second major film makes his previous crime cop double-cross story Narc seem stolid and purist by contrast (though even Narc was pumped up and violent and began with a high-speed chase). Carnahan has seemingly decided to pull out all the stops and just have fun. This rapturously excessive tale of a bunch of competing tribes moving in on Buddy "Aces" Israel (Jeremy Piven), a coke-hound magician and Mafia sidekick turned FBI snitch holed up in a Tahoe palace while the feds strive to save him is a free-floating hybrid of mainstream actioner, B-picture exploitation, midrange cameo-fest, and ultra-cynical Tarantino knockoff. It's a cinephile's sketch pad augmented by substantial technical means. Despite its obvious failings, which we'll get to in a second, Smokin' Aces provides enough eye-popping moments and odd characters and spicy dialogue to entertain, though the obviously inventive Carnahan (who wrote as well as directed) has neither the ear nor the organizational skill of Pulp Fiction's creator. The result probably could never have fared well with critics and certainly hasn't.

Even if Carnahan revealed a tendency to push things too far even then, Narc had freshness and intensity. You can see that same quality in the hyped up opener of Smokin' Aces where FBI agents in a van (including Narc veteran Ray Liotta) argue with other operatives and even talk over the dialogue of the Mafia honcho they're watching and eavesdropping on. The flashy editing and grainy images provide a caffeinated buzz that makes you eager for more. One overall trouble with what follows is its subject is static: "Aces" Israel just sits there wallowing (however convincingly) in his coke hangover and his self pity flipping cards as whores and bodyguards come and go and the Tahoe scenery radiates outside mockingly through the huge hotel picture windows. Another serious problem is that some of the would-be assassins moving in for the million-dollar reward, such a a bail bondsmen (Ben Affleck) and some sidekicks and some tattooed maniacs from a horror movie who off them, are just tossed in for flavor, when a little more depth in the main characters would have been far preferable. The competing gangs provide an opportunity for parallel action, but like his critics, Carnahan has diced and sliced his sequences rather than organized them into neat groupings. There is nonetheless some suspense and excitement, but the action and the explanations are so busy it's quite impossible to follow and therefore hard to appreciate.

Affleck, not tragic like in Hollywoodland, is amusing during his brief turn. Piven unfortunately has nothing to do but vegetate (however convincingly). Among many well cast and well-differentiated minor characters, I loved the maniacal but sweet-faced hillbilly methfreak who kills Affleck and then makes him into a reassuring ventriloquist's dummy, I liked the tough grandma who saves an agent from hypothermia and the hyperactive kung-fu monster kid she's caretaking. I liked the nasty-talking pair of black female hit persons, one going in for the kill as a leather-skirted hooker while the other, wired to her, watches manning heavy weaponry in the opposite building. I was less impressed by Wayne Newton as himself or Andy Garcia as a mushy-mouthed FBI exec, looking and sounding like a muffled version of some earlier role. When a nasty who's posed as FBI and now poses as hotel security clashes with Liotta's agent, and they both lie dead on an elevator floor and then slowly seem to come back to life, that's memorable. Elevators take on a life of their own in this movie, and some of the hotel action rivals Soderbergh's Oceans series.

The thing about Tarantino on steroids and speed though is that one essential element is missing: the ability to stop the action and engage in some ridiculous but unforgettable banter like Samuel L. Jackson's with John Travolta in Pulp Fictioin, or Dennis Hopper's speech to Chris Walken in True Romance, or the soothing professionalism that happens when Harvey Keitel as Winston 'The Wolf' Wolfe comes in to clean up a blood-spattered car for Jackson and Travolta. It's the balance these calm moments creates that makes the violence sparkle. But maybe we all know that, and know that nobody writes dialogue like Tarantino in Pulp Fiction and True Romance, not even Tarantino. Carnahan can't do it, even though what he can do is maintain a consistent light tone and a sense of variety even if after a while you get too confused to altogether care. The overall impression of the entertaining but not quite successful Smokin Aces is of a squandering of obvious writing and directing talent. Let's hope he'll hit the target better next time, perhaps by exercising a little more restraint.

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