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+

OBSERVE AND REPORT (2009)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 26 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Pervasive Language, Graphic Nudity, Drug Use, Sexual Content and Violence

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Directed by: Jody Hill

Written by: Jody Hill

Starring: Seth Rogen, Ray Liotta, Michael Pena, Collette Wolfe, Anna Faris, Aziz Ansari, Jesse Plemons, Patton Oswalt & Danny McBride

Most people know Seth Rogen for his goofy stoner comedies. These juvenile (but mostly enjoyable) R-rated flicks usually have a crude sense of humor, lots of profanity and don’t take themselves seriously. This might explain why OBSERVE AND REPORT is the lowest grossing (and mostly ignored) entry in Rogen’s long, successful filmography. Like a comedic version of TAXI DRIVER set in a mall, OBSERVE AND REPORT is a mean-spirited little film that borders on becoming a straight-up character study of a sociopath. Taken for what it is, OBSERVE is an interesting watch if only to see Rogen in a far darker role than he’s usually given.

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Ronnie Barnhardt is a bipolar mall security guard on a power trip. Barnhardt’s life is finally given purpose when an anonymous flasher exposes himself to several mall-goers, including countergirl Brandi (whom Ronnie has a crush on). In an effort to become a “hero,” Ronnie clashes heads with Detective Harrison (the frustrated police officer assigned to the case), tries to woo Brandi, and goes into the process of becoming a cop. Of course, since Ronnie is a raging sociopathic asshole with delusions of grandeur and a bad attitude, none of these things go quite as planned.

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The character of Ronnie is unlike any other role that Rogen has ever taken before or will likely ever play again. This delusional security guard is less of a goofy source of comedy and more like a borderline psychopath who elicits questionable chuckles from his awkward interactions with people around him. OBSERVE AND REPORT might be billed as a dark comedy, but the tone is far more serious than director/writer Jody Hill might have originally intended. This is a movie where things like mental illness, shootings, corrupt cops, and date-rape are punchlines. However, the pitch-black sense of humor in which the film treats these serious topics isn’t as funny as it probably should be.

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Besides Rogen, other big names also pop up in supporting roles, including Anna Faris playing the ditzy, manipulative Brandi. The film’s best performance easily goes to Ray Liotta as the detective who becomes increasingly fed up with Ronnie’s childish antics. The scenes between Liotta and Rogen stand out as some of the best moments in the entire story. Their dialogue exchanges made me wish that the story had been centered more around this rivalry between Ronnie and Harrison. As a rather useless additions with potential built for something bigger, Michael Pena plays Ronnie’s second-in-command (whose ultimate arc feels like a waste of time) and Jesse Plemons only pops up as a trainee for a couple of scenes. The script has a lot of on-and-off plot threads that ultimately wind up playing a miniscule roles in the story. One could argue these are the film’s jokey set pieces, but they aren’t fully treated as such. Ultimately, the story for this darkly comedic character study feels very messy and tonally all over the place.

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OBSERVE AND REPORT isn’t completely underwhelming as the film as its moments and aims for an emotional core underneath its twisted exterior. A memorable slow-motion sequence in the final act also has the second-best use of the song “Where Is My Mind?” that I’ve seen on film. However, OBSERVE AND REPORT feels like a weird mishmash of what could have been a far better and more effective film, if only the script and characters had been further developed. This movie is never as poignant as it occasionally tries to be and never reaches the perfect balance of twisted hilarity and dark content that better dark-comedies have in the past (e.g. THE WAR OF THE ROSES). Overall, OBSERVE AND REPORT is worth one watch if only to see Seth Rogen playing a total sociopath and experience the strangest title of his filmography thus far.

Grade: B-

COP LAND (1997)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 56 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Strong Language and brief Nudity

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Directed by: James Mangold

Written by: James Mangold

Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Harvey Keitel, Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Peter Berg, Janeane Garofalo, Robert Patrick & Michael Rapaport

COP LAND is a film that I discovered by accident. I was surfing the web through various movie pages and stumbled across this forgotten crime-drama. Seeing this stars the likes of Sylvester Stallone in the lead role, you might initially guess that this movie would be filled to the brim with gunfights, car chases and explosions. You would actually be very wrong, because this tense little film takes it’s time with a thriller approach to what easily could have turned into a bombastic over-the-top B-flick. COP LAND is one of the better surprises that I’ve had in quite some time.

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The time is the late 80’s and the place is New Jersey. Freddy Hefflin is a wannabe cop who’s been regulated to the position of small town Sheriff due to him being deaf in one ear. Freddy really doesn’t have much to do seeing as most of the residents of his small town are NYPD cops who he idolizes day in and day out. When a mishap on a highway lands one of these officers in hot water, Freddy is enlisted by an Internal Affairs investigator to dig deeper into the façade of “Cop Land” that is actually hiding a whole lot more than one small cover-up. Freddy finds himself pitted against the very heroes that he idolized as he realizes just how deep police corruption cuts through his own territory.

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COP TOWN moves at a slow, deliberate pace in order to build up its characters. I cared about every single one of these people in one way or another. The heroes are complicated and the villains are fleshed out into the two-faced criminals that they really are. I really can’t throw enough praise at just how good this whole screenplay is. There are plot twists throughout that did surprise me and the movie never once treats its audience like idiots. A natural progression of good vs. evil fuels the story in a way that feels entirely fresh. It’s all fantastically entertaining and intense. Some of the plot points do seem a tad rushed, but that’s not exactly a huge complaint seeing how well the rest of the story plays out around it (including a phenomenal final act that felt like an old-school Western was taking place on the streets of New Jersey).

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I don’t think it’s overhyping this film to say that Sylvester Stallone easily gives his best performance as Freddy. When most people think of Stallone, they immediately picture Rocky or Rambo. Though he’s carved out a place in the cinematic world for his rough and tough action heroes, the role of Freddy is far from any of those characters. This is a shy, soft-spoken guy who feels like he’s constantly in the presence of Gods when he’s among his NYPD residents. Stallone is fantastic in the part and plays every emotion in a very subtle fashion. I’d be remiss not to mention just how fantastically the corrupt cops are portrayed by the likes of Harvey Keitel, Robert Patrick and Arthur Nascarella. Ray Liotta shines as Freddy’s best friend who may or may not also have a dog in the corruption race around town. Though Robert De Niro is underutilized as the Internal Affairs investigator, he makes the most of what little screen time he’s given (about a total of four scenes).

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COP LAND uses gritty atmosphere and a dark tone to its advantage. The small town setting really lends to the suspense of this film. It feels like the fictional Garrison, New Jersey might as well be in the middle of nowhere, even though New York City is one bridge away. The finale is absolutely perfect and satisfying beyond words. Some have criticized the film for taking an easy way out. I disagree as the entire story feels like a long suspenseful fuse that’s intensely burning towards a giant powder keg. The final 20 minutes of this story are the explosive results of that keg going off.

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COP LAND is an underrated crime-drama that really sees Stallone take on a role unlike any other in his career. What’s even more impressive is the unlikely production of this film altogether. It was made on a small budget and all of the actors worked for scale. It’s clear that they read the script and knew there was a good story to be told here. Though there are a couple of slight flaws (a few rushed plot points and Robert De Niro being wasted in a very small role), COP LAND is well worth recommending. Check this one out!

Grade: B+

KILL THE MESSENGER (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 52 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language and Drug Content

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Directed by: Michael Cuesta

Written by: Peter Landesman

(based on the book KILL THE MESSENGER by Gary Webb & Nick Schou)

Starring: Jeremy Renner, Barry Pepper, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rosemarie DeWitt, Ray Liotta, Paz Vega, Oliver Platt, Michael Sheen, Richard Schiff, Andy Garcia, Robert Patrick & Michael K. Williams

There are plenty of reasons why KILL THE MESSENGER is a “good” movie. It addresses huge important issues and features a standout performance that ranks among Jeremy Renner’s best roles. Other talented faces pop in and out of the story as well. There are plenty of great moments as well. It’s a shame that bad pacing fumbles up the overall experience. For those interested in corruption, ignored history, and one of the earliest whistleblowers before Snowden, then MESSENGER is a worthwhile watch.

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In the mid-90’s, Gary Webb got an interesting tip that led him to publish a series of three articles known as “Dark Alliance.” Webb interviewed many drug dealers and criminals in order to unveil a conspiracy that led to a discovery of CIA officials who knew full well about cocaine being used to fund Nicaraguan rebels in the 1980’s. It was a crooked way of fueling a conflict that wasn’t getting full support from Congress. Obviously, Webb shedding light on a top-secret story wasn’t exactly what the CIA wanted. A massive smear campaign was launched against the man to discredit him rather than focus on genuine points in his articles. KILL THE MESSENGER is based on Webb’s entire ordeal with a conspiracy thriller vibe thrown into it for good measure.

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The two biggest reasons to see KILL THE MESSENGER are the true story behind the film and a knockout performance. If there’s anything this film gets completely right, it’s that I wanted to read up on the actual story about Gary Webb’s articles and get multiple points of view. That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of this plot though. Sometimes, it feels as if certain angles were prettied up in order to automatically see Gary Webb as a perfect hero figure (despite his past sins). It’s a tad manipulative and offering a more complex/flawed view would have made for a more challenging/realistic movie. Jeremy Renner knocks it out of the park as Webb! The actor pours so much emotion into his role that it’s great to watch him pretty much carry a decent movie. Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Webb’s editor), Oliver Platt (Webb’s boss), Robert Patrick and Andy Garcia (drug dealers), Michael Sheen and Ray Liotta (government agents) all deliver in their scenes, even if they only appear for a mere five minutes of screen time.

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The biggest killer of momentum in the film is the pacing. There are interesting scenes that totally work within the context of the movie, but also a couple of godawful stretches that border on tedious. There’s not a solid reason why this movie should run at nearly two hours. 20 minutes could have easily been snipped out for a tighter flick. Some of these include family dynamic clichés that failed to flesh out the story further or give any emotional weight to this movie version of Webb. Also, the insertion of clips (interviews with government officials or stock footage) as montages feels like a cheap technique of transitioning from scene to scene. It’s almost like a documentary approach was inserted into an otherwise traditional narrative and it’s as jarring a decision as it sounds.

KILL THE MESSENGER, Jeremy Renner, 2014. ph: Chuck Zlotnick/©Focus Features/courtesy Everett Collect

KILL THE MESSENGER did a good job of pissing me off and rightly so about at the upsetting true story at the core of the film. Jeremy Renner almost single-handedly makes the movie work with a great performance, while other capable actors make their presence known. Bad pacing really kills the building momentum. There are definitely standout plot points that needed to be kept, but a few unneeded clichés felt cheap. I am glad I watched KILL THE MESSENGER if only because it shed some light on a troubling story and got me interested enough to read up more on the facts behind the film. I can’t imagine ever watching it again, but it’s a decent flick.

Grade: B-

SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 42 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Brutal Stylized Violence throughout, Sexual Content, Nudity, and brief Drug Use

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Directed by: Robert Rodriguez & Frank Miller

Written by: Frank Miller

(based on the SIN CITY graphic novels by Frank Miller)

Starring: Mickey Rourke, Jessica Alba, Josh Brolin, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Rosario Dawson, Bruce Willis, Eva Green, Powers Boothe, Dennis Haysbert, Ray Liotta, Christopher Meloni, Jeremy Piven, Christopher Lloyd, Jamie King, Juno Temple, Marton Csokas, Jamie Chun & Julia Garner

The original SIN CITY was one of my favorite movies during high school and hopes were high that Frank Miller’s amazing crime anthology would play out with the two sequels as a trilogy. Announcements for big name talent (including the original cast and the likes of Johnny Depp) were made and then the much-anticipated sequel was placed in development hell. Almost a full decade later, the second installment has finally been released and it was not worth the ridiculously long wait. Ironically, another Frank Miller sequel released this year bears some strong resemblance to SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR. That film would be 300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE. Both sequels are forcibly trying way too hard to duplicate what the filmmakers think fans liked about the originals and neither of them succeed well at it. DAME TO KILL FOR is a mixed bag in every way.

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A DAME TO KILL FOR follows the same format as the original SIN CITY. It’s a crime anthology with four noir tales that have recurring characters and an interlocking timeline. While the first film felt open and vibrant with every single detail being paid close attention to, this sequel feels confined and cheaper in many ways. The production values range from sometimes gorgeous to mostly corny. I don’t mean corny in the sense that things feel too far over-the-top (some intentional cheese works well), but corny in the sense that the world around our actors is fake looking. The visuals of 2005’s SIN CITY hold up well to this day and made me feel like I had entered a dangerous city filled with criminals. DAME TO KILL FOR feels like I’m watching a bunch of actors pretend in front of a green screen with silly looking CGI backgrounds around them. It feels like less attention was being placed on detail and more on pumping this thing out fast, but that’s not the real case because this had a nine-year-long production. The stories are as follows…

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JUST ANOTHER SATURDAY NIGHT: Marv (from HARD GOODBYE in the original) wakes from a drunken stupor surrounded by crashed cars, corpses, and blood. He tries to piece together what happened to put him in this situation from hazy memories. This opener lasts less than 10 minutes and introduces the vibe that things are more forced this time around. Some dark comedy is present and I had fun watching the style in which this tale played out, but the writing was okay at best. Marv’s make-up looks ridiculous on Mickey Rourke this time around and it hurts that he appears during every single story in some way or another. It should have been an early sign for disappointment that the memorable character with the most disturbing tale in the first film was in a campy opener this time around. B-

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THE LONG BAD NIGHT: This first full-blown tale is the best segment in the film and up to the caliber of the original flick. I wouldn’t call it only good, but pretty awesome as a whole. Johnny is a gambler with a superb winning streak who visits Basin City (a.k.a. Sin City, duh) to play the most powerful poker game in town. He finds himself in over his head when he goes up against the corrupt Senator Roark (family member to a twisted priest, a cannibal serial killer, and a yellow-skinned pedophile in the first flick). Roark doesn’t take kindly to losing and Johnny finds himself against odds that he didn’t foresee when he leaves for a night on the town.

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Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a welcome newcomer to the cast as Johnny and Powers Boothe (briefly glimpsed in SIN CITY) takes center stage as the slimy Roark. It’s easy to hate the gambling villain and the story was fairly predictable, but a few twists did take me by surprise. I liked a reveal midway through that wasn’t so much of a shock but a nice direction to take the story. The ending of this tale is fantastic. It’s a poetic conclusion to the best story of the sequel. Also production values felt far better in this single story than they were in the rest of the entire film. A

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A DAME TO KILL FOR: The story is where the ride begins to get really bumpy. Dwight (from BIG FAT KILL in the first film) is a private investigator specializing in incriminating photos. When a femme fatale from his past contacts him about her abusive husband, Dwight becomes infatuated with the sexy Ava Lord and comes to find too late that the situation isn’t as simple as he expected. This tale was as by-the-numbers as one can get. There aren’t any unexpected twists and some lengthy side plot threads go nowhere.

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This also happens to be a tale where two recurring characters from the 2005 film are recast. The hulking bodyguard, Manute, was originally played by Michael Clarke Duncan (who passed away), but Dennis Haysbert doesn’t necessarily do a bad job of filling the part. He’s a hulking baddie who serves his purpose. However, Josh Brolin is terribly cast as Dwight, a role that Clive Owen owned. Brolin has none of the charisma or charm that made the character so damn enjoyable to begin with. Eva Green (who served as the best performer in 300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE) bares it all here (literally), but isn’t much of a character. She merely plays out as means to an end. The worst part about this second-to-last tale is that it takes up a majority of the running time, so much so that this sequel is titled after it. C

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NANCY’S LAST DANCE: Picking up shortly after YELLOW BASTARD from the original film, Nancy Callahan is looking to avenge her dead lover/protector John Hartigan. To do this, she hardens herself and aims to kill Senator Roark. Her plan encounters some difficulties along the way. DAME TO KILL FOR commits the worst sin any anthology can by ending on its weakest note. This tale with direct ties to one of the best stories from the first film is dull, sloppy and anti-climactic. It was so bad that I was hoping the movie would just get to the final scene that everyone knew was coming. Nothing more can really be said about this story other than it’s poorly acted, written and played out. D

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To say SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR is underwhelming would be an understatement. The main returning cast members from the original come in Bruce Willis (showing up for an extended cameo), a few side characters (including a gloriously wasted Rosario Dawson as murderous hooker Gale), Mickey Rourke as a silly looking Marv, and Jessica Alba shakily trying to take on a lead role in a dark segment. It speaks volumes that the most interesting character (Dwight) only appears for one segment, while the wooden Nancy is throughout every single one of them. Marv, one of the most colorful characters from the original, is turned into a dull brute and that’s all the personality he’s given. After a nine-year wait, I sat in a theater with about six other people on opening night. When the movie ended, a person behind me exclaimed “That’s it?!?” Those two words are likely to summarize most fans’ responses to SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR, including mine.

Grade: C+

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