It is appropriate that the title character of Smokin’ Aces, Buddy “Aces” Israel, is an illusionist, because Smokin’ Aces to a large extent is built on an illusion. The film tries to pretend that it is just a big dumb action movie when in fact it is a bloody character study of the nature of identity and of betrayal.
The film hinges on the idea that Las Vegas magician and would be mobster, Israel (Jeremy Piven) is holed up in the penthouse of a Tahoe casino waiting while his manager tries to negotiate a deal with the FBI for Israel to turn snitch on the mob. A variety of assorted lowlifes discover that Israel is holed up in the penthouse and each head for the penthouse, armed for bear and each with their own agenda.
(The trailers for this film make it seem like the film is about a group of competing assassins looking to collect a one million dollar bounty on Israel’s head, offered by Las Vegas Mafia boss Primo Sparazza, played by Joseph Ruskin, but in fact each group has their own slightly different goal. And they are not really looking for Israel’s head.)
The film is being compared, rather unfavourably, to the work of Guy Ritchie and Quentin Tarantino. Of course, given how much debt Ritchie owes to Tarantino and how much Tarantino owes in turn to Hong Kong cinema, attacking director Joe Carnahan for being derivative, somewhat misses the mark. In any case, one of the subtle distinctions at work here has to do with the way that the film handles the intersections of its characters. In Ritchie’s case, and to a certain extent Tarantino’s, the characters bounce off each other in isolated incidents that build to a climax. In Smokin’ Aces on the other hand, the characters are set up on a collision course and crash into one another at full speed.
Conflict reveals character naturally. Each of the groups involved in the film grapple with the nature of identity and betrayal. Each character or group is either disguising themselves or questioning their own identity, and each character or group is either betraying or being betrayed or both. In some cases, the characters are betrayed by the identity that they have created, in others, the efforts that they have taken to conceal their identity leads to their betrayal.
The greatest illusion of the movie is to hide this theme in plain sight, hidden by the violence swirling around the characters in the film. Even the loud and obvious skinhead assassins, the Tremors, share in this theme. On the one hand, the Tremor’s have created an identity for themselves built around a brash, brute force frontal approach. On the other hand, they achieve better results from this than many of the other groups, reaching the penthouse, which many of the characters never do, and doing so well before many of the characters who do make it there. On the gripping hand, in the end, their brash methods are also their downfall, in one case quite literally their weapons come back to bite them in the ass.
The film also does an interesting job of feeding us, like a magician feeding us an ace for a card trick, an obvious plot twist about the identity of one of the characters, which conceals further even more complicated plot twists related to the characters’ identity or identities.
Particularly moving is Taraji P. Henson as Sharice Watters, one of a pair of beautiful black female assassins. Many reviews call them lesbian assassins, but the film makes it perfectly clear, if you are paying attention, that it is Sharice who is the lesbian, while Alicia Keys’ assassin Georgia Sykes is oblivious to the fact that her partner lusts after her. Sharice’s failure to realize that Georgia does not share her feelings, does not share her self-identity, leads to Sharice’s self-betrayal. Georgia, in turn, is guilty of her own betrayal of Sharice, of being both oblivious to her partner’s desires and uncaring of her partner’s fate.
Also excellent is Common as Sir Ivy, Israel’s betrayed chief lieutenant and Ryan Reynolds, as FBI agent Richard Messner, whose partner, Donald Carruthers, played by Ray Liotta, blunders into the killing zone, betrayed by Stanley Locke, the deputy head of the FBI, played by Andy Garcia, who has his own agenda for Buddy Israel. A betrayal that causes Messner to question his own identity as an FBI agent.
The film is not perfect. The chaos of throwing all of these characters into one another does lead to some dropped threads, and the ending while emotionally true to the story does stretch credulity. Still, this film is a much better and much deeper film than people have been giving it credit for.