2006 may well be remembered for the likes of 300, Casino Royale, and Snakes on a Plane, but it also had a few lesser movies worthy of note. One such forgotten actioner is Smokin’ Aces, an ensemble revenge plot that reeks of multi-national influence. It’s also chock full of bastards.
The plot is simple: sleazy magician-turned-rockstar-turned-wannabe mobster Buddy “Aces” Israel (Jeremy Piven – Heat) is selling out his gangster buddies. His kingdom at stake, Primo Sparazza, the last great crime boss, orders Aces dead before he blabs. Like the king bastard he is, and to send a message to all other would-be snitches, he also demands his former protege’s heart as compensation for the betrayal. The reward – a cool million dollars.
Agents Messner (Ryan Reynolds – Green Lantern) and Carruthers (Ray Liotta – Goodfellas) have been on the Sparazza case for long enough to get wind of the kill order. They, along with a whole host of hit men and hit girls, all begin to converge on the Lake Tahoe casino that Buddy is hiding in.
Things are going to get messy.
For $17 mil, writer-director Joel Carnahan (the A-Team, The Grey) gets a lot of bang for his buck. Not only has he assembled the aforementioned Reynolds, Liotta and Piven, but the likes of Ben Affleck (Daredevil), Jason Bateman (Hancock), Common (Wanted), Tommy Flanagan (Braveheart), Andy Garcia (The Untouchables), Chris Pine (Unstoppable) and Alicia Keys (The Nanny Diaries) among other familiar faces as well. Each gets their moment and no one makes it out unscathed.
Despite being in a Vegas-themed setting, Carnahan’s slickly side-steps the expected smarmy smell-your-own-fart self-indulgence of the Oceans movies. Aces is instead closer to the likes of Snatch or Lock Stock than any other equivalent ensemble-crime-action heist film. It’s also very stylistically different to the grim look of most modern Studio Canal produced crime thrillers like Taken or The Equaliser. It’s bright, colourful, a bit silly and the Brit/Franc influences are obvious.
But enough of that. Let’s get down to the baddies – there’s a lot to get through.
Hugo (Joel Edgerton – Zero Dark Thirty) is one of Israel’s bodyguards/minions, and the butt of his entourage’s jokes. He’s eastern European, with a tendency for expensive awful-looking tracksuits. His dopey, pallid face is topped with a mop of hair, hinting at a former ex-military buzz.
Beyond carrying out menial tasks for his boss, he also likes to ride bare-back with any spare slut that doesn’t make it into Ace’s bedroom. While he doesn’t get a chance to redeem himself for ruining the $12k calfskin jacket, he is a key player (or at least his face is) in events as they unfold later in the film.
As chief of security for Buddy, Sir Ivy (Common) is well aware of the deep shit that he and his boys are in. At this stage, he is just trying his best to keep everything low key. Slick, professional, and old skool, Sir Ivy is a badass with a code. Part of that code is that you don’t rat out your own. Naturally, he loses his cool when he discovers his boss is planning on selling his crew out. Ironically, he is the first person to take a pop at Ace’s.
Later, after dispatching the Tremor Brothers (see below), Ivy rescues a wounded Sykes from the firing line. Whispering sweet nothings in her ear, he carries her out of the whole bloody mess. It’s just like The Bodyguard, only with Black Dynamite instead of Robin Hood.
The Bail Bondsmen
Not only is Buddy on a one-road highway to meet his maker, he also has a court date. Scumbag pervert attorney Rupert “Rip” Reed needs some guys to bring Israel in. He hires bail bondsman Jack Dupree (Affleck), who is well aware of the bounty already on Ace’s head. For extra muscle, he brings in former Vegas cops “Pistol” Pete Deeks (Peter Berg – Hancock) and Hollis Elmore (Martin Henderson – The Ring).
While not strictly bad guys, they’re still on the playing field. After all, they are bringing in Israel for the money and not for the good grace of mankind. They have the inside track, however – Dupree know’s where Buddy is holed up.
It’s just a damn shame they are taken out just as they are putting their plan into action: they’re the first casualties of the Tremor Brothers, as they rumble into town. It’s a bit of a shock, and quite ironic, bearing in mind how high Affleck was billed. He was also the damn narrator. A nice curveball from Carnahan.
The Tremor Brothers
We’re getting to the heavy hitters now. The introduction (aptly provided by Affleck) paints a grim and violent picture: three genuine bastard brothers from different Dads, these skinhead-punk-kamikaze agents of chaos will kill a hundred innocents to get to one man. They’re as subtle as dropping an anvil on someone’s skull.
Pre-Captain Kirk Chris Pine leads the brothers as Darwin Tremor, though I did initially think it was Jeff Hardy of WWE Fame. He is joined by younger brothers Jeeves (the big one – the obnoxious Kevin Durant from Real Steel) and Lester (the little one – Maury Sterling who was some dude in A-Team).
I was disappointed with the fact that they were all able bodied – according to Affleck, in their last strike, one got shot in the neck, the other in the back, and the third was blinded. Am I the only one who was hoping for something akin to See No Evil, Hear No Evil, just with guns and chainsaws? No?
Stealing the fake security uniforms (ably procured by Dupree – pre-random-murdering), they infiltrate the casino successfully. After a brief encounter with Sykes, they gear up for action. Spilling out onto the floor where Israel is hiding, they clash with the security team who were bringing out the raging Sir Ivy. The scorched-earth tactics of the Tremors clashes with Ivy’s cool professional precision. Lester and Jeeves are put down (onto a chainsaw in Jeeve’s case) after an orgy of blood and fire.
Darwin escapes, only to be executed by Elmore. It turns out he survived their first encounter, albeit minus a finger or two. And so ends the tale of the toxic Tremor Brothers.
While most people seem to be in this for the money, and I’m sure the Tremor’s are too, these guys seem to care the least. They have no plan to speak of, and provide a fun contrast to the professionalism of the other assassins.
Sykes & Watters – The Hit Bitches
Two beautiful hit-women, these girls are on a roll from a previous score that got their names on the lips of all the right people. Murderous bastards they are, but scumbags they are not; they’re in this for the money. Who gives a damn if a shit like Buddy “Aces” Israel has to be got to get them the riches they desire?
Georgia Sykes (Keys) is the honey trap of the pair, whereas Sharice Watters (Taraji P. Henson – Hustle & Flow) is the armored support. The plan is for Sykes to get up close and personal with Aces. In the guise of a cheap Vegas whore, the plan is a solid one. Watters is on overwatch from another block of the casino. The scope of her fucking-massive sniper rival is ever-fixed on her partner.
But Watters clearly has more invested, emotionally, with Sykes. Finding the bodies of Carruthers and Acosta spread across the interior of an elevator, Sykes finds herself in the line of fire from the FBI. With his partner bleeding to death in front of his eyes, Messner makes a move to take out Sykes, believing she is the gun(wo)man.
Thinking Sykes dead, Watters goes bat-shit mental, and unloads on the floor, blasting the unprepared agents. But Sykes isn’t dead. Just wounded. Sir Ivy, fresh off stopping the Tremor Brothers, comes across her. Together, they get the hell out of dodge.
Spying the couple through her scope, Watters stops crying and shooting. It’s just time enough for the cops to get in there and silence her for good. Ivy and Sykes get away, bloodied, but alive.
I really liked this pair. They weren’t super soldiers, experts in disguise or blitzkrieg specialists. They were relatively new in the job, and going about it in a realistic way. Keys, primarily a singer, really pulls it off too. She’s hot, deadly and inhabits the role. In fact, as singers/rappers, Keys and Commons (Common Keys?) are both memorable here. That’s saying a lot, considering the other side of the coin is Ja Rule in Half Past Dead.
Bonus Bastard – The Karate Kid
Not one of the key players, or even a genuine bastard in any case, I still feel Carnahan ripped us off by NOT having that annoying little karate kid get at least headbutted by Elmore.
Heavily wounded, Elmore survived the random assault from the Tremor Brothers. Dumped into the ocean with his dead partners, Elmore swam to shore and stumbles upon a country house. Its run by a rotund Mother who lets her prick child get away with murder.
The recovering former cop has to deal with a karate-mad, skinny runt who thinks he’s all that. He likes getting in Elmore’s face, and really needs his shit pushing in. I was gunning for this prick getting shot more than Israel. It doesn’t happen, to my infinite sadness. It’s not even a special feature on the BluRay. Sad times.
Pasquale “The Plague” Acosta
The first solo hitman on the case, Acosta is a legend in the underworld. According to Affleck’s description, he is a master torturer, and so ballsy that he even chewed off his own fingerprints to escape detection while in SAS custody. It’s a gnarly reputation that he likes to live up to.
Ably played by the mayor of Gotham from the Dark Knight, Acosta moves with poise and purpose. He politely feigns his way into the casino. He knows the game, and only kills those he has to. The preferred method of killing is via a weird needle thing that he has up his sleeve. It’s a bit sci-fi, but looks painful as Hell when he stabs folk with it. This suits the character perfectly, as it’s quiet, personal, and probably hurts like a bitch.
In the guise of casino security, his disguise is rumbled by Carruthers as they are both in an elevator. Cue a bloodbath of close-range shooting. Barely alive, the pair are found by Sykes, whom Acosta takes a pop at. Ever the hero, Carruthers finishes him for good.
Sadly, for such a lofty and cool description, “ThePlague” doesn’t really have the opportunity to do anything super depraved or plague-like. His Assassins Creed knifey thing is different, and we’re already dealing with so many chefs, that I guess Carnahan just didn’t want to spoil the soup.
Ah, the future Badass Hall of Famer Tommy Flanagan. What great casting for this role. Like Acosta, Lazlo is a legend amongst the high end hitmen community. His specialty is disguise via latex masks. This sadly means that the scarred mug of Flanagan isn’t on show for very long. Instead, he spends most of the film in the guise of poor Hugo.
This clever deception gets him closest to Israel. But he isn’t there for the bounty; he’s there to kill Israel’s bodyguards. He is part of a deeper conspiracy. We don’t know this until the end, of course.
Sparazza is dying, and badly needs a replacement heart. Buddy “Aces” Israel, SPOILER ALERT, his son(!) is the perfect match. Hence the kicker in the kill order. Lazlo is there to facilitate top surgeon “The Swede” in the transplant. The FBI interrupts the killer at work, and he has to make a sneaky escape. This doesn’t mean Sparazza is totally out of luck or that Israel is out of the woods though.
Stanley Locke – FBI Deputy Director
A surprise entry here. Garcia seemingly has the back of Reynolds and Liotta throughout. But he has his own agenda, and as new information comes to light, he screws his guys over for “the greater good”.
I guess the world does need people like Locke. They make the hard, shitty choices in the grey areas between black and white. His motivation is interesting in that he doesn’t ditch his best agents for money or anything like that, but to potentially rid the world of even more crime. He see’s the bigger picture, and by having Sparazza live and testify, he may be able to bring down some other big guns. For the greater good, yeah? It’s a gamble someone in his position has to take, even if it cost him Carruther’s life and Messner’s career. It was a tough call that only a ruthless bastard could make.
On a side note, I’m so used to seeing Garcia with an accent, that it just sounds wrong him trying to be American. Don’t worry though, he still has the same haircut he uses in every single one of his films. Every one.
Buddy “Aces” Israel
The main man that everyone is out to get. And what a prize he is. A magician and entertainer who has slid into a life of crime, he enjoys all of the rewards that his great success has brought him. He has money, fame, bitches, a crew. But he’s still missing something important. He’s restless, and no amount of blow and blondes is ever going to be enough.
While it is revealed he is Sparazza’s son at the end, we never know if he knew. Instead, he was just a lonely kid who became a magician. Clearly the attention he obviously craved was never enough. He may have played the game, but a gangster he is not. He’s still just that kid, throwing cards and doing magic tricks.
With the assassins circling, his attitude is self-destructive. It’s almost as if he welcomes his death. Yet, he clings to life until the end.
Piven, whom I’d recognized as just the Doctor from Heat, really doesn’t get enough credit for his work here. He really pushes the boat out way further than a Studio Canal action romp would normally require. This is some next level Nicolas Cage Leaving Las Vegas shit here. One minute he’s raging, the other he’s begging, or laughing or crying. You have to give him credit, even if he is playing such a complete tool.
There are a lot of plates in the air when it comes to the bad guys in this. Let’s face it, EVERYONE is bad unless their names are Messner or Carruthers.
Carnahan cleverly ranks the bastards though. They’re not all faceless, emotionless murderers. They each have skills, methods and small character moments all kindly underlined by Affleck’s narration at the beginning.
Beyond this, the conduct of the likes of Sykes, Watters Sir Ivy and even Hugo make us want certain people to be more successful than others. In a word, he makes us care. We feel sorry for Hugo’s treatment by Israel and his entourage. We all can understand the betrayal felt by Ivy. We can appreciate how horrendous it must to see (or think you see) someone you love die in the case of Watters and Sykes. But they’re all killers! They’re all mercenaries. Yet we still care.
The most perfect execution of this is the character of Buddy “Aces” Israel. Let’s get this straight – he is a scumbag, and he clearly deserves what is coming for him. He’s squandered his talents, played with fire and is about to get seriously burnt. Despite all this, I pitied Aces. He had the money, the lifestyle, the drugs, the broads, the clothes. He treats everyone like shit, and is so wholeheartedly self-centered, but I still pitied him.
He is alone, and no one can really save him. He knows this, and he knows that he’s going to have to sleep in the bed that he’s made. His life is going to end, be at his own hands or those of a hired gun. It’s almost a hilarious tragedy.
Smokin’ Aces isn’t the greatest film. It’s not as clever and intricate as the cast would suggest. But it’s action-packed, amusing, and good entertainment. And its all about the Bastards. Enjoy.