Tuesday, 10 April 2007

Smokin' Aces (2007)

Every movie is like a magic trick!

A decade ago, Quentin Tarrantino used to cast a long and heavy shadow over many a career of an aspiring filmmaker. With the trio of Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, the director's high octane, manic style and violence on speed created cottage industry of Tarrantino-inspired short films and features, because every new filmmaker wanted to create a movie as hip and callously iconic as Tarrantino's bulletfest grindhouse pics. I'm sure this should sound familiar with you; only a few years ago in Asia, the every upcoming Asian director fresh out of film school ended up making a Wong Kar Wai-inspired short film, the type that slavishly attempted to recreate the auteur's visual style, his storylines, character types, and even reusing his soundtrack choices, most notably Shigeru Umebayashi's theme for In the Mood for Love. I mention all this not because I get this nostalgia from recounting tales of my youth as a Substation First Takes monthly festival regular, but because I have to point out that invariably all these homages, these Wong Kar Wai-inspired films were terribly painful to sit through. Like his asian counterpart, the cottage industry of lesser-talented filmmakers attempting their own Tarrantino flicks have been equally dismal and lacking in success. Both genres, one would think, had died a natural and dignified death about 5 to 10 years ago, but Joe Carnahan thinks otherwise. Will he succeed this time round in making a Tarrantino bullet-fest, and make it better than the master? Let's find out.

To begin with, Carnahan seems to be going for Tarrantino by way of Guy Ritchie - Smokin' Aces has a very reluctant informant Buddy Aces Israel (as with Tarrantino naming conventions, you wonder which is the nickname and the real name of the character) having a contract for his life - or more precisely, his heart - taken out by his ex-mafia buddies. With news of the bounty leaking its way into the world at large, a race begins with multiple factions of bounty hunters slugging it out with each other and the FBI to see who gets to Buddy Aces Israel, a race that can only end with a spectacularly violent blood-filled finale.

Visually and thematically, the mashup of Tarrantino storytelling and Guy Ritchie visuals feels par for the game. Everything you expect from a Tarrantino-style cottage industry film is there: the fast edits, profanity, cartoonish gore and violence garnishing the sometimes chaotic and multiple plot lines that come together only at the end, with a huge wallop of an entertaining climax of loud noises and red bodily fluids. Yet for all his slavish Tarrantino playbook techniques, the best part of Smokin' Aces still has to be its first act. It's sort of a film equivalent of juggling with chainsaws, really: an entire half hour is taken up to establish the basic premise, the plot, and the players, and it's all done through talking - lots and lots of talking heads action. Each faction of bounty hunters and FBI operatives take turns to reveal more and more about Buddy Aces Israel, the bounty laid on his heart, and also introduce the next faction of bounty hunters. It's pure exposition dressed up as dialogue, as if the director wanted us to ask "it's a clever idea, but can he really sustain this properly, and can he do it expertly?" The first act seems good enough, fulfilling the structure of its storytelling method, but there's a problem that discerning audiences may notice - although intelligently adhering to the form, what director Carnahan's delivery acts is the wit and humour that one would expect if someone (say, Tarrantino) had been at the helm.

The first act of the film - its high points and pitfalls, are strangely emblematic of this movie as a whole. The insanely complicated plots all converge in a bloodbath, but audiences who look beyond the satisfaction of splatter on screen cannot help but notice that the true touch of genius - wit, pure enjoyment - is missing in this film. His efforts are acceptable, if totally predictable, but when Carnahan decides to put his imprint on the Tarrantino-wannabe film genre, things go awry - the director's attempt to inject a twist ending are patently and painfully obvious to the point of giving away the game early on, while any audience will feel amiss to see a straightforward splatter movie plod to a moralistic and preachy ending - simply put, the emotions that form the last 30 seconds of this film come out of nowhere, as if the director realised that his experiment cannot stand on its own.

To enjoy this movie to the fullest, you'd have to be a great fan of Quentin Tarrantino, a greater fan of the late cottage industry of Tarrantino-wannabe films, and pretty forgiving of missteps at the end of films. All in all, Smokin' Aces manages to satisfy, but just barely.

First published at incinemas on 12 April 2007

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