SMOKIN’ ACES (2007)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 48 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Bloody Violence, Pervasive Language, some Nudity and Drug Use

Directed by: Joe Carnahan

Written by: Joe Carnahan

Starring: Jeremy Piven, Ryan Reynolds, Martin Henderson, Ray Liotta, Andy Garcia, Tommy Flanagan, Alicia Keys, Common, Taraji P. Henson, Nestor Carbonell, Chris Pine, Kevin Durand, Maury Sterling, Jason Bateman, Ben Affleck, Vladimir Kulich, Peter Berg, Joel Edgerton & Matthew Fox

Playing out like a Tarantino imitation that’s just snorted a heavy dose of cocaine, SMOKIN’ ACES is not a traditionally good movie. It’s ludicrous, over-the-top, and pushes excess for the sake of excess. However, it’s a whole lot of fun. This is a big guilty pleasure of mine that doesn’t deserve the bad rep that it usually receives. I’d go as far as calling this high-octane action-comedy-thriller an underrated gem. Its flaws actually make for part of its charm. This was one of my favorite films in high school (so there’s definitely nostalgia here), but having recently rewatched it for the first time in years, I have to say that SMOKIN’ ACES is a gory good time that consists of bullets, blood and rock-and-roll.

FBI Agents Messner (Ryan Reynolds) and Carruthers (Ray Liotta) have been placed on a special extraction mission. Their team is close to cracking open one of the biggest mob busts in history and their entire case hinges on the testimony of Las Vegas performer-turned-snitch Buddy “Aces” Israel (Jeremy Piven). Not wanting to be exposed, the mafia has put out a 1-million-dollar price for Israel’s heart. This ginormous paycheck attracts various undesirables, including: three psychopath neo-Nazi brothers, two lesbian sharpshooters, three smart-aleck bounty hunters, and a couple of very scary killers. The casino hotel that Israel is holed up in soon becomes a bloody battleground between FBI agents and security guards against a slew of psychos who want Israel’s heart (literally).

SMOKIN’ ACES immediately lets us know that it values style over substance with a 1970s-esque credits sequence and title cards to introduce every character. These many introductions take up the first ten minutes of screen time, but are executed in a way that makes every scene naturally flow together. Much like CLOUD ATLAS cut between storylines in a flawless manner, SMOKIN’ ACES carefully balances the many plot threads that it’s juggling throughout (for a majority of the running time). This film employs flashbacks, quick cuts and different scenes of dialogue that deliberately bleed into each other (like one steady conversation between different characters in different locations). Even when the exposition-heavy introductions occasionally seem like a bit much, Joe Carnahan knows how to hold the viewer’s interest.

ACES’s characters include a colorful band of criminals, psychopaths, and scumbags (with a couple of heroic FBI agents thrown in for good measure). Ryan Reynolds and Ray Liotta do well in their roles as the film’s only two good guys, but the only development they’re given comes from a debriefing and a so-so bit of comic relief near the opening. Andy Garcia seems to be forcing a mind-bogglingly bad Southern accent and winds up with the film’s worst performance as a result. However, the totally irredeemable characters are where this movie shines strongest. Jeremy Piven is in rare form as cokehead, small-time crook Aces and even has a bit of an emotional story arc when he realizes how far he’s fallen. This might not be as effective as it should have been, but it’s a refreshing bit of levity to the bloody chaos ensuing in the hotel’s hallways and elevators.

Speaking of which, SMOKIN’ ACES is super violent! Machetes, chainsaws, grenade launches, creative means of dispatching someone, gruesome torture, and boxes of bullets (for many different types of guns) make their way into the proceedings. This film is ferocious in its action scenes and unabashedly depraved in its wicked sense of humor, but this makes it a blast for viewers that enjoy films like CRANK, SHOOT ‘EM UP or Quentin Tarantino’s entire career. These weapons are wielded by merry miscreants, my favorite of whom are the Tremor brothers (one of which is played by a young Chris Pine). This trio of redneck neo-Nazis aren’t subtle in any way, shape or form. They go into a place blasting and have the film’s most memorable action scene, while also delivering the most darkly hilarious moments in the entire movie.

The relationship between hired killers Sharice (Taraji P. Henson) and Georgia (Alicia Keys) is surprisingly strong, though this occasionally feels like it exists purely for the exploitation factor of having sexy gun-toting lesbians. Common has a brief role that makes for an unexpectedly tense moment, while Joel Edgerton has a silent (but memorable) part in the proceedings. Ben Affleck, Peter Berg, and Jason Bateman are sadly underused as two of the bounty hunters and a deeply depressed lawyer. The film’s biggest problems come from the storyline of Martin Henderson’s reluctant sidekick to Affleck’s bondsman. It’s not that Henderson’s acting is terrible, but most of his scenes feel drastically out-of-place. The worst of these include unfunny bits with a karate-loving preteen wangster. That all being said, this subplot’s grisly punchline is satisfying beyond belief.

SMOKIN’ ACES crams a ton of storylines into one movie and balances them surprisingly well for almost 90 minutes, but a few of these don’t receive satisfying pay-offs in the long run. The biggest examples being an intense killer known as The Plague’s anti-climactic final moment and a face-swapping baddie not receiving a great send-off. The final 20 minutes are meant to arrive as a giant shock to the viewer with two inspired plot twists. One of these is clever and the other is…well…kinda stupid. The film lays down heavy foreshadowing early on as to what the stupid twist might be and I correctly guessed it upon my first viewing. This dumb plot twist and mixed bag conclusion feel like a weak sigh to an otherwise hilarious, raunchy, and chaotic ride.

As a whole, SMOKIN’ ACES is a very entertaining action flick with spurts of insanity, plenty of humor, a cast of colorful characters, and constant fun for viewers who enjoy this sort of thing. The film isn’t perfect in that its final minutes are easily the weakest part of the entire story, there’s a noticeably terrible performance from Andy Garcia, and one subplot feels a little too “out there.” However, I truly enjoy SMOKIN’ ACES for the unabashedly silly action flick that it is. If this sounds like your kind of movie, then it probably is!

Grade: B+

BONE TOMAHAWK (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 12 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

BTomahawk poster

Directed by: S. Craig Zahler

Written by: S. Craig Zahler

Starring: Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox, Richard Jenkins, Lili Simmons, David Arquette, Sid Haig & Geno Segers

Two genres that don’t often go together are Horror and Westerns. Combinations of the two very different genres have only been attempted a handful of times to my knowledge (THE BURROWERS, FROM DUSK TILL DAWN, and TREMORS). BONE TOMAHAWK just happens to be the latest effort that tries to blend these two distinct genres into one creative story. While it definitely leans more onto the Western side before diving straight into Horror country for the final third, I can easily fathom that this film will please fans of both cinematic genres. Blending a slow brooding pace of a John Wayne flick with some graphic cannibal horror, BONE TOMAHAWK is an unexpectedly great film that came out of nowhere and knocked me on my ass.

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Bright Hope is a peaceful, out-of-the-way town that never encounters any serious problems. Tonight is different as a strange drifter has just rolled into town and caught the eye of Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell sporting a magnificent bit of facial hair). One brief confrontation later and the drifter is behind bars at the local jail with only a law man and a nurse to keep him company. This drifter’s arrival was the mere beginning of something far more sinister and the jail turns up empty in the morning. Hunt suspects that Indians might have something to do with the three disappearances and soon learns that there’s something in the wilderness that even Indians are afraid of. Taking their lives into their own hands, Sheriff Hunt brings along Arthur O’Dwyer (the missing nurse’s husband), Chicory (an old-fashioned deputy), and John Brooder (a trigger-happy bigot) on a rescue mission into some very dangerous territory.

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For a movie that’s essentially been sold as Kurt Russell fighting cannibals in the Old West, BONE TOMAHAWK is far better than I think anyone could have anticipated. I mean, sure that one sentence pitch sounds fun in and of itself, but this movie treats itself as a dark and brooding ride. Everyone is playing this ridiculous-sounding material with a believable straight face. This approach works far better than it probably should have. First-time director S. Craig Zahler (who also penned the decent ASYLUM BLACKOUT) uses a confident hand behind the camera to bring his vision to life. This feels like a slow-burn Western that just happens to have a long showdown with vicious man-eating cannibals in the final act.

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This self-serious approach can also be seen in the performances of a remarkable cast of big-name actors. Kurt Russell (who’s also starring in certain other Western that arrives later this year) is very much in his element. He’s having a blast as Sheriff Hunt and gives the performance his all, which brings to life a likable bad-ass with a heart of gold. Patrick Wilson is especially good and plays the wounded husband (he has a broken leg all throughout the film) as a determined man on a mission. Richard Jenkins brings a strong screen presence as the kindly old deputy. Meanwhile, Matthew Fox really shines as the despicable Brooder (who has an interesting motivation of his own). David Arquette and Sid Haig also make brief, memorable appearances.

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When it does get into the horror section of its story, BONE TOMAHAWK also gets extremely graphic in the violence department. Seeing as the plot involves cannibals, I was expecting gore. I just wasn’t expecting this film to have a scene that rivaled the best moment of THE GREEN INFERNO in its sheer viciousness. Even when we get severed body parts and guts spilling out onto the screen, the movie never goes into cheesy or over-the-top territory. Instead, the brutality only adds to the dark atmosphere that the movie was playing with from the very beginning.

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Though the running time might be a little too long and there’s a noticeable leap of logic made in the final moments, BONE TOMAHAWK is far better than I think anyone could have anticipated it being. The premise may sound ludicrous on paper, but the way it’s executed with an exciting new director/writer behind the camera, a rock solid cast acting their hearts out, and exciting bursts of violence transform the silly material into a seriously great time. It’s a shame that BONE TOMAHAWK didn’t hit theaters, because there are scenes that would get great audience reactions (I found myself cheering while watching it at home). If you’re craving something out-of-the-ordinary for this final week of this Halloween season (or any time really) and don’t want to make a trip to the multiplex, BONE TOMAHAWK should satisfy your craving. This is one of the best horror movies of 2015!

Grade: A-

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