For a very short period, somewhere during the mid 00s, Hollywood went a little mad. It dared to be flashy, it didn't mind leaning into the silliness, it even took on some maximalist tendencies. This didn't last very long, it's clearly not where the big bucks are, but it did yield some very interesting films. Joe Carnahan's Smokin' Aces was one of them. Not all of these films have upheld their initial appeal, such is the destiny of a fad after all, which is why I was somewhat hesitant to revisit Smokin' Aces. And while I will say the film lost some of its initial shine, I still had a blast with it.
Hollywood has a lot of money to spend, but it usually blows it all on mediocrity. That is very much by design, as they're mostly interested in recouping as much of their investment as possible. Under the influence of Tony Scott (with films like Domino and Man on Fire), there is a slew of mid 00s action flicks that went a different route, taking that money and using it to crank up the style. It spoke to a very particular niche, which is why the bubble didn't take long to burst, but there was a good 5 years when films like this seemed to pop up on a regular basis.
Apart from the obvious stylistic choices, there's also a clear and recognizable intent to not take the films too seriously. These are pretty daft action flicks with enough larger-than-life elements to make even the most hardened fans raise a few eyebrows throughout, so why not lean into that silliness, rather than make a half-assed attempt at making sense of something that is inherently senseless. Smokin' Aces is a perfect case study, putting a slew of insane characters and crazy shoot-out on display, the type that defy any kind of proper explanation.
The plot is little more than an expanded premise, but a film like this doesn't need anything more. When a weaselly guy promises the FBI to testify against one of the last remaining Mafia cartels, he becomes their obvious target. With a bounty of no less than 1 million dollar on his head, all the hitmen come out of hiding, hoping they can be the ones to claim the prize. The FBI gets wind of the hit and sends out some of its best men to defend the target. A race begins to track down the snitch, but a darker force is at play, messing with the plans of both the hitmen and the FBI agents.
Visually, this film sticks quite closely to the style Scott popularized. Oversaturated and bold colors, a grungy and grainy image quality, snappy editing and evocative camera angles. It can get a little ugly and Carnahan is more of a follower than a trailblazer, but the styling is so bold that the good clearly outweighs the bad for me. I always like a dedicated maximalist effort, especially coming from a corner of the industry that isn't known for taking bold risks, and Smokin' Aces delivers. It's certainly one of the prime reasons this film still works for me.
The soundtrack isn't quite on the same level though. It's not that no effort was made, there are enough moments when the music takes center stage and tries to set the mood, it's just that the somewhat wimpy rock/metal soundtrack feels anything but powerful and distinct. The score quickly becomes muddled background noise, which isn't really what a film like this needs for making a bold statement. It's not a complete mood killer, and it's not so bad that it becomes actively irritating, it's just a shame Carnahan leaves so much potential untapped.
The cast is a pretty unique bunch, certainly looking back at them now. There are a lot of familiar faces, but many of them weren't all that famous when the film was first released. Ryan Reynolds wasn't "Reynolds" yet, Chris Pine is virtually unrecognizable, and Alicia Keys was still figuring out whether she could become an actress. None of the performances really stand out, but the cast as a whole does well and there is enough winking and nudging going on to keep the tone light and breezy. Also, kudos for casting Ben Affleck in a part well below his stature. No doubt one of the best jokes in the entire film.
Action films don't need a complex plot, intricate drama or layered performances. It suffices for a good action film to be pretty badass, and that's exactly what Carnahan goes for. Yes, there are some twists and yes, he could've pushed it even further, but considering the film's roots that's not a very realistic expectation. The ending is probably a bit too explanatory and long, with the finale action scene happening some 20 minutes earlier (a Shaw Bros film this ain't), but those are just minor critiques on an otherwise fun and entertaining film.
Smokin' Aces is a film made with a specific audience in mind. It's not the type of film that will convert people into loving a genre, nor is it a film that stands out through unique and distinctive merits. It's a proper, dedicated genre film executed with the necessary love and conviction. Take a bunch of wonky hitmen, add the necessary explosive firepower, pepper it with an over-the-top approach, and you have a film that still stand proud today. A bit less so than when it was first releases, with little to stop its decline in the future, but those are worries for the next rewatch. If you like a messy, exaggerated action flick, watch it now.