If there was a common thread through 2006, it was the use of trailers to prime false expectations in the viewer. A couple of times I think it was used well (Children of Men, The Prestige) but most of the time it was just misleading (Pan’s Labyrinth, The History Boys, Stranger than Fiction).

Smokin’ Aces is another movie that has a misleading trailer, so I was disappointed by the film, but the trailer was at least an extension of the movie’s own purpose to frustrate your expectations. Unfortunately I haven’t read any critics who provide any insight about the movie, and it has been unfairly treated like a merely stylish action flick. Not to say I liked the movie, but it is admittedly underrated.

I hate paraphrasing the plot of a movie but analysis of Joe Carnahan’s anti-action film is impossible without describing how it unfolds. Spoilers following:


The first hour of the movie is spent familiarizing us with several groups of assassins who are competing for a hit on Buddy Israel (a.k.a. Aces) while it is the cops’ job to protect him. It is an extremely slow and tedious hour, but one’s patience is sustained only by the promise of the fantastic conflagration sure to erupt when everyone descends simultaneously on the target’s penthouse suite.

This expectation, however, gradually begins to erode as a series of short, premature confrontations take the momentum out of the impending conflict until there is no one left to fulfill the seemingly promised set piece of unparalleled senseless violence. It is as if the movie’s plot is undermined by truly “senseless” violence.

Having disappointed us, the tone of the movie then changes as it tries to make us feel bad for wanting to see a “traditional” 90s-style action movie where lots of people get shot. The camera lingers on the dead characters and tries to evoke sympathy for their deaths as if it were a drama not an action movie. Thus one realizes Smokin’ Aces is not an action movie but an anti-action melodrama that uses the familiar style and conventions of the action genre to make the audience feel guilty for enjoying violent movies with a high body count.

(I recognize this is an extremely personal reading of the movie, but I think the “grammar” of the editing is fairly obvious in terms of the emotional effects it intends to produce.)

The final act of the movie then draws out the political subtext heretofore latent in the film (protecting “Buddy Israel” and bad intelligence as a result of misinterpreted surveillance) and extrapolates an anti-war message from it by making “action movie” an allegory for “war.” A late twist, which had been telegraphed earlier, then portrays the government as hypocritical because the #1 bad guy (read: Osama, Saddam, or even Stalin) is revealed to be a former ally. Meanwhile the crusading cop confronts his superior about his partner (=soldiers) being allowed to die in the field on false pretenses.

bateman.jpgFor all its cleverness, however, I don’t think the political allegory really works; it is just too convoluted to make sense and feels more like two or three inconsistent conspiracy theories being patched together. The movie’s story makes sense on its own terms, but loses coherence when viewed from the political angle (unless the mob boss is supposed to represent Palestinians or Arabs or Islam in general?).

In any case Smokin’ Aces has a provocative if pessimistic ending, but the movie is more fun to think about than it is to watch, and probably suffers from trying to cram in too many big ideas. The single memorable performance is two short cameos by Jason Bateman playing what could be Michael Bluth in ten years.

There are also some truly bizarre interludes involving a hyperactive child who gets excited by imitating the Karate Kid, but I think Crank made the same point more effectively using a similar gag, and mercifully restricted its satire to action movies without also tackling foreign policy for the heck of it.

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