Wednesday, January 24, 2007

'Aces' trumped up

smoke ‘em if you got ‘em

I tend to like my action flicks lean and mean.
Unfortunately, ‘Smokin’ Aces’ is a turducken wrapped with bacon and attitude.

Opening this Friday at a rowdy multiplex near you the latest joint from Joe Carnahan deserves word-of-mouth…and that word should be ‘overload’… which can be a good thing for some but a disappointment for others. The rawness we appreciated in ‘Narc’ is given over to the overcooked and overstuffed parade of semi-star cameos, distracting artillery fireworks and ‘bad-ass’ moments that have become all-too-familiar in the Tarantino zeitgeist. But rather than embracing the nerdy joy and humor that people overlook in Tarantino’s violent ‘low-budget’ homage, Carnahan goes for the safe combo platter of shoot-em-up and sentiment. It has a Woo tang but is really just dollop after dollop of Hollywood empty calories. (Insert contrast to ‘Layer Cake’ here.)

To Carnahan’s credit all of the storylines and characters hint at great moments but because the path was chosen to overwhelm rather than drilldown, the audience is left with an inkling that more interesting stories are happening just off screen. The meeting between a ‘bodyguard’ (played by Common) and one of the assassins is really kind of beautiful in a B-movie way and holds so much potential… but it is not set up with the power of ‘inevitability’ or followed through with any earned satisfaction.

One plot thread is violently and effectively ended earlier than you expect it and the revenge subplot that spins off from there was an opportunity for great character development and the potential to hit solid genre marks/clichés (the ‘avenger’ is resuscitated by kindly stranger, the ‘avenger’ doesn’t take revenge quite the way you expect…) but instead it is filled with too many surreal quirks (a ‘karate kid’ doing the robot?) that make things bizarre and at times funny but, in the end, annoying because there is no more development of the recovering ‘avenger.’

It is clear that Carnahan can handle quiet moments, but he seems to have no faith that the audience might want more of them. The opening scene between Ray Liotta’s and Ryan Reynold’s characters is filled with so much of the promise set up by ‘Narc.’ The timing of the two actors is impeccable, the dialogue is naturalistic and for a moment you think this is going to be a great ‘buddy’ study. The final shot of one ‘buddy’ is also perfectly done with a swell of music, simple camera work and a believable performance in a classic genre scene. The problem is that the scenes that would have effectively connected these first and last shots have been chucked to make room for thirty or more other speaking parts.

The closest comparison I can make to another movie is to “True Romance” which also had a multi-character swirl of plotlines and ammunition and has the distinction of being a true combination of the Tarantino and Tony Scott precedents that “Smokin Aces” will inevitably and deservedly be compared to. The key difference being ‘TR’s ‘heroes,’ Clarence and Alabama, who are prominent even in the midst of the quirky and quite large cast. ‘Aces’ doesn’t give enough screen-time to ANY of its quirk-deliverers or characters for us to truly care who lives or dies. Even a solid-B-minus actioner like “The Transporter” builds the ridiculous action around a clear protagonist regardless of how wooden that character is portrayed and/or written. And even a “Wild Bunch” of anti-heroes display their humanity long enough to earn the audience sympathy. What’s sad is that “Aces” actors seemed amply prepared to deliver the charm if given the room.

“Aces” overwritten plot will be defended for ‘complexity,’ which supposedly ‘invites multiple views.’ “Ronin” is a brilliant example of purposely leaving a barebones ‘action’ plot and yet still inspiring a sense of complexity. The “Ronin” McGuffins are there to inspire dynamic action and tense character interaction. Who really cares what the fuss is about when the fuss is what it’s really all about? “Smokin’ Aces” commits two more sins with it’s McGuffin by putting waaay too much exposition in the dialogue AND not making that exposition very interesting. If a film is going to ‘tell’ rather than ‘show’ it better strive to sound as interesting as two hitmen talking about Le Big Mac or foot massages.

One of Carnahan’s successes in the film is his use of elevators to effectively build cinematic tension (even in the shadow of Woo’s “Hard Boiled”), particularly in the quiet moments. When one character looks at a fuzzy reflection in an elevator door or when one character in a group slowly backs away from an approaching elevator we see Carnahan’s sure hand at letting the images play out and speak for themselves; one shot implies ‘dread’ and the other gets one of the bigger laughs of the movie. One wishes there were more palette cleansing moments like these. Most of the time, however, “Aces” serves up bit after overstuffed bit. A turducken might be an entertaining goof but I was left hungry after this one.

Post Script 1: Jason Bateman kills as the quirky exception that proves the rule. His odd scene-stealing cameo is one of the best played, funny scenes you will see this season.

Post Script 2: Surprisingly, “Aces” doesn’t lessen my excitement about Carnahan’s adaptation of “White Jazz” (with George Clooney as James Ellroy’s Dave Klein!), which I imagine and hope will be closer to his impressive “Narc.”