Film

Smokin' Aces (2007): Blu-ray


Smokin' Aces

Director: Joe Carnahan
Cast: Jeremy Piven, Ryan Reynolds, Andy Garcia, Ray Liotta, Alicia Keys, Common
Rated: R
Studio: Universal
Year: 2006
US date: 2010-01-19 (General release)
UK date: 2010-01-19 (General release)

Smokin' Aces is a movie that desperately wants to be liked. Not by your typical mainstream moviegoer, however. No, Joe Carnahan's follow-up to his well received Narc is feverishly adamant about being adored by the frantic film geek contingent – the mélange of messageboard taste makers who determine their own individual aesthetic criteria by what Quentin Taratino determines is cool on his MySpace page. It's the cinematic equivalent of the slightly introverted dork who walks around the high school cool kids bragging about his accomplishments and contacts. By faking and fronting, this movie hopes to grab their attention and earn an uneasy place in their crime genre lovin' hearts.

It's just too bad then that the director decides to win their praise by overplaying his obvious and rather obscure hand. Part of the problem is in the story itself. Smokin' Aces (being re-released on Blu-ray by Universal on 19, January) rests its entire effectiveness on our desire to empathize with and/or outright despise its amoral center, a sleazy Las Vegas magician named Buddy "Aces" Israel. Brought to remarkable life by Entourage's Jeremy Piven, this miscreant mobster wannabe is ready to rat out the entire West Coast syndicate, and a substantial bounty has been placed on his head (and, oddly enough, his heart). Naturally, word gets out on the street that the successful assassin will earn themselves $1 million large, and before you know it, every noted nutcase with a comic book persona and a wealth of heavy artillery is headed towards Israel's Lake Tahoe penthouse suite. Their goal? Pump this putz full of lead – and various other projectiles- before the Feds can speed him off to Witness Protection.

Thus begins the parade of peculiar cartoon characters and lean mean action movie archetypes. Carnahan is not out to manufacture realistic, three dimensional thugs. Instead, he decides that a heightened sense of stature, a caricature perhaps, would be the best way to envision his wild and wooly villains. This means we get ghetto gangbusters Georgia Sykes (a decent Alicia Keyes) and her slightly Sappho backup, Sharice. There's also the slightly homosexual redneck retards The Tremor Brothers. Played by Chris Pine, Kevin Durand and Maury Sterling, they're like the Three Stooges on speed metal and too many episodes of Jackass. Toss in the torture expert Pasquale Acosta, the master of impersonation Lazlo Soot, and a trio of bewildered bounty hunters led by a seedy Ben Affleck, and you've got a considerable cast of crackpots.

On the side of good, Ryan Reynolds and Ray Liotta are fast talking FBI agents, their partnership so focused and single minded that they more or less finish each other's thoughts. Their boss is Andy Garcia, a stuffed shirt hiding his bureaucratic bluster within an air of suave seriousness. There are ancillary people props as well, including a heard but not seen Alex Rocco, a Ritalin addicted brat who speaks like a rapper, and a collection of slight and sketchy human odds and ends. Everyone's status as incomplete ideas wouldn't be so bad if Carnahan had set them up inside one of those wonderfully impractical macho mania movie narratives. You know the kind – an impenetrable fortress, a series of video game like challenges to be met and overcome, the sense that defeat is just around the corner while victory is almost always assured. Had Smokin' Aces been so intricate and innovation, the flat features of its cast would fit right in.

Instead, we find our attention wandering during many of the so-called set pieces. We watch Alicia Keyes' Georgia and try to decipher how she started her life as a hired gun. As the Tremor Brothers grapple with each other and constantly fidget with their privates, we speculate on how these Deliverance style bumpkins became such in demand daredevil thugs. Even as round after round of ammunition is dumped into situations, when muzzles are flashing and sparks are spraying in eye and mind appealing slow motion, we never once feel connected to the chaos. That's because Carnahan is merely pretending to play visionary. In truth, he's just riffing on those filmic forefathers that created and confounded the formulas he's fooling with, which makes the arm's length ideal that much stronger.

This doesn't mean that Smokin' Aces is unwatchable. Hardly. There are specific scenes and individual moments that stand throughout as examples of the movie's many facets – comedy, action, homage and spectacle – coming together in amazing statements of artistic clarity. When the backstory on Buddy Israel is offered, it's many Las Vegas insider elements revealed, we feel the dizzy glitz of the city where any and all sins are meant to stay secret. Similarly, each hit man (or woman) gets a nice little illustration of their skills, and this helps to make Soto, the Tremors, and Acosta into viable evil. As the moral center of the story, Reynolds gets a couple of fantastic visual moments. One comes as he leaves the hotel, the attempt to protect Israel botched by a dozen intervening elements. As he walks into the daylight, the sun literally absorbs his outline, losing his fixture as a hero in a cloud of dazzling whiteness.

Reynolds' second scene brings the film to a close, and after the half-baked denouement we get for all the gunplay, it's a very dramatic and very necessary sequence. Yes, Smokin' Aces wants to give us one of those gobsmacking, jaw-dropping twist endings, a conclusion that cancels out and changes everything we've seen before. Unfortunately, only the dimmest of cinematic sleuths would miss the obvious clues to the reveal, and though he intends it to be insightful, Carnahan's finish just kind of lays there, doing very little to alter our perceptions. It's like learning that there's no Santa Claus, or that Dr. Pepper doesn't contain prune juice. For all it's attempted kinetic energy, Smokin' Aces can't help but resemble an urban legend that's been left out in the public consciousness for far too long.

And the recently released Blu-ray (porting over most of the previous DVD's content) does little to alter that suggestion. Universal deserves credit for creating a technically sound - nice image and audio - fully supplemented package that draws us into the various facets of this film's production. Two commentaries expertly illustrate the somewhat schizophrenic nature of the film. Carnahan and his editor Robert Frazen discuss the actual shaping of the storyline, mentioning scene by scene what was filmed and how it was tweaked in the cutting room. A second track with Carnahan and a few cast members (no one significant) is just an excuse to joke around and mock the other actors. The deleted and extended scenes clarify very little, while the "explosive alternate ending" advertised on the package is nothing more than gunshots substituting for nuance. The best material offered is a trio of backstage featurettes, all of which illustrate how determined and delighted Carnahan is to be working on this, his first major motion picture.

It's a shame then that the results weren't more magical. Smokin' Aces stands somewhere between the creative crack attack of Crank, and the testosterone fueled freak out of the WWE's The Marine. It's not the highest octane thriller in the entire post-modern motion picture paradigm, but it sure doesn't crackle and snap like it should. It could be a case of too many character kooks spoiling the body count broth, or a filmmaker so filled with ideas that he doesn't know how to successfully streamline his approach. Whatever the case may be, you'll enjoy the various overly aggressive face offs while wondering aloud just who in the heck these oddball people really are. While Buddy "Aces" Israel may be the center of a murderous maelstrom, pitting mobsters against maniacs, he remains the core enigma of an entertaining offering that just can't fit in – not within the creative OR commercial cliques.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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