The subtext seems to be Iraq: I can’t discuss in too much detail without giving away the game, but Joe Carnahan’s Smokin’ Aces ultimately involves “the monster that the Bureau built” (the Bureau, of course, being the FBI), a bunch of small-minded bureaucrats trying to save face at the expense of any number of lives, a laborious, multifaceted assault on a debauched stronghold, and the closest thing to the film’s protagonist raging at the pointlessness of it all and defiantly pulling the plug on the whole rotten operation. The governing theme is that “it’s all bullshit” — illusion, sleight of hand — with the subject of all the hullaballoo a scummy, lowlife human Macguffin; the film’s most stunning revelation is that the entire cast of characters has pretty much wasted its time. To the extent this is a political film, it’s deeply cynical, deeply bitter.
Looked at this way, the film’s own pointlessness — its aimless, juvenile silliness — seems almost justifiable, or at least appropriate. But wait, that can’t be right: you can’t actually make a movie pointless and stupid to make a point, can you? It doesn’t seem fair. Yet that’s the only way to reconcile Smokin’ Aces‘ thematic niftiness with its tiresome, dumb-as-a-rock exterior — if it wasn’t for the Twist, which is frankly stupid from a plot perspective but at least makes some sense of the film, Carnahan’s follow-up to the enjoyable Narc would have been unbearably irritating, and I mean that pretty much literally.
Thing is, it is all bullshit: loud, brash, violent, sub-Tarantino outrageousness. The plot hook is potentially compelling — some half a dozen assassins and g-men, all working independently, converge on a casino penthouse, hunting a magician-turned-mobster-turned-informant (Jeremy Piven) — but Carnahan makes mincemeat of it, preferring grating pseudo-comic montages to any attempt at narrative or visual cohesion. He cross-cuts furiously (sometimes in the middle of lines of dialogue), composes impossibly gaudy images (I’m still reeling from the deranged trio of S&M-attired; assassins who barricade themselves in an elevator), and nearly kills himself writing profane-yet-implausibly-eloquent dialogue that seems calculated for maximum rhetorical flourish and minimum interest. Some of what he tossed in I still don’t understand: Can someone please explain to me the deal with the deranged little kid who harasses poor Martin Henderson around the start of the third act?
Movies like this — in which the central plot gimmick involves the characters maneuvering around a discrete physical location — need precise choreography and a pitch-perfect sense of geography; Carnahan botches it wholesale. The elevators that figure prominently in the late-film goings-on seem impossibly slow, which might fit well with the Iraq War metaphor but makes for a frustrating viewing experience. There’s a lot of shooting and stabbing, and at least one out-and-out gun battle, but since we never get a sense of what’s where in the damn hotel, the frenetic action remains entirely suspense-free.
The thrust of the ending is easy to spot from a ways away, and under no circumstances does it justify the sound and fury that precedes it. But I kind of liked it anyway: if Carnahan’s desire to shock and surprise was always as productive as it is in Smokin’ Aces‘ very last shot, we’d be looking at quite a different film. The generous could look at the final gesture as a brazen assertion of individuality over the sort of incompetent collectivism we now deal with every day — if my Iraq War interpretation has any credence, then the ending endorses the possibly naîve notion that we have the power to stop it.
I’m afraid, though, that Joe Carnahan has entered the realm of Guy Ritchie. I want to see more from him, but I want him to settle down. Smokin’ Aces is fast, furious, annoying and — political subtext or no — unrewarding.