Better than advertised… and then some.
Buddy “Aces” Isreal (Jeremy Piven) is a high-profile, Las Vegas stage magician planning to offer himself as a witness against an organized crime syndicate in return for amnesty. Two FBI agents (Ray Liotta and Ryan Reynolds) are sent to ensure Buddy’s safety while an FBI director (Andy Garcia) works out the deal, because someone overheard that “a million dollars” has been offered for Buddy… and his still-beating heart. With a price tag so high, several psychotic individuals quickly become involved: three bail bondsmen (led by Ben Affleck and hired by Jason Bateman), two up-and-coming freelance assassins (led by Alicia Keys), the Neo-Nazi Tremor brothers (Chris Pine, Kevin Durand, and Maury Sterling), and a few other freelance killers. Plus there’s the wild card known only as “The Swede” (Vladimir Kulich). May the best hitman win.
At first glance, Smokin’ Aces appears to be one of those intentionally-quirky, hard-hitting, violent-reality comedic dramas that “break the mold” by being ridiculously over-the-top. But unlike Lucky Number Slevin, which couldn’t stop winking at the audience long enough to tell the story before we guessed everything, Smokin’ Aces has almost too much story to tell and amazingly executes the story to fit it all in (please remember this for a Best Editing Oscar next year, folks). From the director of Narc, writer/director Joe Carnahan gets the job done.
The secret is in the ensemble plot of fleshed-out characters and the perfectly plausible catalysts used to explain how all these people (and their firepower) all wind up in the same place at the same time prior to when the shooting starts. In fact, by the time the guns start blazing, the audience is already so invested with the characters that the body count (and the surprise order) really hits home; you actually give a crap whether these people die or not. Some are too cool to die, and some deserve it but are too much fun to wish it on, but the fact is that not everyone is going to walk away and you may be very surprised with who does and why.
I have to mention the music, which was every bit as exceptional as the editing. I can’t say for sure every character or group had their own theme, but it sure seemed like it. As everything unfolds and the clips start running low, survivors of the aftermath are shown moving on whether they’re winners or losers. By the satisfying conclusion, everyone who could has followed their own code of ethics to the very end, and the surprises just keep coming. Once again, a filmmaker has proven that a high-concept action thriller doesn’t have to be a summer blockbuster to hold your attention nor be a chick flick to make you care about it. If you’re not out of breath by the time the credits roll, you’re probably already dead.
(a three and a half skull recommendation out of four)