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The 2007 film lineup has finally begun for me. Sure I have seen many movies thus far, but they have all been holdovers from last year. Joe Carnahan’s Smokin’ Aces is definitely a fantastic opener and a hopeful sign of things to come. A mixture of high octane action with some very surprising, emotional moments and true dramatic worth, this all-star cast has some fun and allows the audience to just ride the wave with them. Something like this has a big tendency to taper off, yet Carnahan had a vision to jampack every insane idea he’s had the past 3 years or so and really keeps the adrenaline flowing for almost the entire run-time.

Our basic plot involves a huge operation that has been going on to destroy every last visage of the mafia. Everyone is pretty much behind bars except one last don, Primo Sparazza. The FBI believes they have their snitch to finally bring Primo in, and his name is Buddy “Aces” Israel, Las Vegas’ performer of the year for the past five. This magician had worked his charm into the crime syndicate and had gotten himself in far too deep. So, basically we have the FBI trying to keep him alive until he agrees to rat out everyone, thus granting him witness protection, a bail bondsman and his ex-cop friends trying to extradite him for their employer, and seven hitman for hire on the case to take him out for a million dollars from the crime boss. Primo is on his deathbed and he wants to see the rat gone before he expires with his heart as proof.

Right from the start Carnahan has us inside the action. All exposition needed, to understand the circumstances, is given to us as each player receives it. In a nice stylistic move, the director cuts between everyone around the world getting ready to travel to Lake Tahoe for Israel, making all the conversation match up as though they are all talking to each other. This maneuver enlightens the audience, not only on the plot, but also on the background of each character. So, in turn, we learn all we need while the action continues to play out, never getting bored or slowed down by characters of power dictating stories and plot points. The action continues to build and build, as a result, until finally reaching the climatic rendezvous of everyone at the casino’s penthouse room, housing Buddy.

A movie of this caliber can only succeed as far as the characters being able to keep the pace fast. As a result we have a collection of some of the best actors working today each with a quick tongue and the dramatic chops to stay realistic. Jeremy Piven is brilliant as Israel, using the comedic wit that has vaulted him to where he is today. The sharp timing allows for some memorable one-liners with his crew and his showmanship in flashbacks really makes you believe he is a skilled magician. What really surprises and excites is his ability to steal scenes with his dramatic acting. His is a man who is beaten into submission mentally and must turn on those he has trusted for the past years of his life. Not being able to get up the illusion of his own composure, we are treated to some great scenes of him breaking down under the pressure. This truly is a Piven we have not seen before and the combination of seriousness and comedy hopefully will get him some great roles in the future. As for the other crazy characters, we have Jason Bateman so far from his “Arrested Development” role that it is hilarious to just look at him, not to mention the words that spew from his mouth—priceless; Ben Affleck and Peter Berg acting cool and collected while dragging their partner Martin Henderson along with them, the rapport between the three is nice; Taraji Henson and Alicia Keys (yes the singer) are brilliant as hitwomen on the case, talking racial politics and ripping on each other while being just plain badass; and the awesome Zach Cumer as a Ritalin-addled karate kid, so hyper and little that the dialogue and action he gives is some of the best comedy I’ve seen in awhile. I won’t even mention the Tremor Brothers, as you must see them to believe them.

The film is not all violence and laughter, though, as it has some phenomenal straight men to counteract the comedy. Common is surprisingly very calm and collected for his first film role, Ray Liotta is great as always, and Nestor Carbonell adds some nice villainy to the mix of cartoon caricature killers. The real standout in the entire movie, however, is Ryan Reynolds. Who would have thought that Van Wilder would have the acting prowess to pull off a complicated role like this? He is the only one involved that seems truly affected by the violence and carnage happening around him. You watch his character lose all the cool he had and emotionally breakdown while being left behind by his superiors in the bureau. Once the dénouement commenced and the film slowed to crawl, almost taking me out of the film completely with its “I’m so clever” twist, relayed by Andy Garcia with the worst fake accent I’ve ever heard, that subverted all the success the first three-quarters of runtime had, I was shaking my head in disgust. Thankfully Reynolds’ stayed true to his evolution as a character and redeemed the horrible ending with a pitch-perfect finally shot.

Smokin’ Aces 8/10

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photography:
[1] Chris Pine, Kevin Durand and Maury Sterling in Universal Pictures’ Smokin’ Aces – 2007
[2] Ryan Reynolds and Ray Liotta in action crime Universal Pictures’ Smokin’ Aces – 2007

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