The first step is to know what you do not know. The second step is to ask the right questions. I reserve the right to lean on my ignorance.
Today we are considering the action-crime film, "Smokin' Aces," released January 26, 2007. It stars Andy Garcia, Ryan Reynolds, the soul singer Alicia Keyes, Ben Affleck, Ray Liotta, the rapper Common, and Jeremy Piven.
Let's start this way...
I, personally, always define "dark comedy" this way: It is serious drama fuelled by an absurd premise. To my way of thinking the absurd premise met by the serious reaction has what I call "the straight man effect."
This term, "straight man," harkens back to the days, decades past, when comedy was done with partners, Abbot and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, and the like. The partner who said the funny things had the punch lines; he was the goof. His partner, who reacted to him in the mock, appalled, school-marmish way, was the straight man. His mock-serious reaction made the punch lines even funnier.
But of course, we're not talking about the genre of films that are sometimes called "action comedies," like, say Mel Gibson Lethal Weapon films, or the two Rush Hour films with Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan.
Take Quentin Tarantino's masterpiece, Pulp Fiction. That is an example of what I would call cinematic "dark comedy." You will recall that the absurd premise fuelling the story is: How did gang boss, Marcellus Wallace's soul get into a briefcase, which wound up in the hands of some young, barely post-teen punks, who, we are given to understand, somehow screwed Mr. Wallace on some kind of a deal, which resulted in their temporary possession of Marcellus Wallace's soul in a briefcase---which hit men, Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winfield (Samuel L. Jackson) are sent to retrieve?
That soul-in-a-briefcase fuels everything else that happens. But the movie keeps a straight face, as it were, and proceeds like an unconventional but serious gangster thriller.
If an absurd premise driving serious drama gives you "black or dark comedy," what does the opposite give you? That is to say, what does a serious premise met by an absurdity of an unfolding plot give you? Isn't it like inappropriately talking on your cellphone during a funeral?
Ryan Reynolds and Andy Garcia are FBI men. Jeremy Piven is a Las Vegas stage magician, Buddy Israel. His father is a well known gangster. Buddy has been protected all his life, but one day he gets an itch that he can't help but scratch. He wants to be a big-time, arch-criminal too, in a sort of "monkey see, monkey do" fashion.
He makes some moves and appears to have gotten what he wanted. But when things get hot for him, he agrees to turn state's evidence against the underworld. In order to prevent that from happening, someone seems to have put out a "contract" on Buddy's life, offering a big reward for his scalp, figuratively speaking.
At that, a Lucky Charms rainbow of characters---so-called assassins---come out of the woodwork to try to get the bounty. Chaos reigns and culminates in a big shootout between several of the Lucky Charms characters (including three characters who were simply in the wrong movie; they really belonged in Mad Max; Beyond Thunderdome, or something) in a hotel.
Oh yeah, Ryan Reynolds's character and the FBI are also there, at the hotel, shooting it out as well.
This is a plot-driven film, not a character-driven one. The way I define the terms are like so:
Plot-driven: The story unfolds with things happening to characters, and those characters reacting to those things. The story unfolds in an outside-in way.
Character-driven: The story unfolds because of the unique way certain core characters think and feel; and it is this unique way of thinking and feeling that causes them to react to outer events in their own, unique way.
Now, it seems to me that this movie's premise and unfolding plot lost track of each other, very early on.
For instance, Andy Garcia was in this film. This is an objective fact. And yet I could easily convince myself that he was not in this film. Mr. Garcia played a very, by-the-book, buttoned-down, FBI supervisor, very white-collar and proper.
It is not easy to associate his character as having taken part in the same movie that featured the Lucky Charms killers, with all of the misplaced absurdity that this band of jokers entailed.
Here is why I gave my definitions of "character-driven" and "plot-driven."
The movie moves along as a shoot 'em up, action crime thriller, a plot-driven affair, that is concerned with surfaces, not depths. It is perfectly fine for a movie to only do the surface, if it does "surface" well.
Both versions of Assault on Precinct 13 are examples of well done, plot-driven, surface-concerned, action crime thrillers. John Carpenter's Escape From New York also fits the bill. Unlike some "critics," I thoroughly enjoyed Slvester Stallone's version of Get Carter. I enjoyed both "Purge" films: The Purge and The Purge: Anarchy.
I also think that the Bruce Willis film 16 Blocks was more effective in carrying out what Smokin' Aces tried to do. Those two films tell the same basic story; and as I said, the former carried it out much more effectively.
In 16 Blocks, Bruce Willis's job (playing the character of a world-weary cop, with a possible drinking problem) was to protect a witness (Mos Def) from an assortment of bad guys, who, in this case, just happen to wear badges like Willis himself. These bad cops mean to kill the witness.
!6 Blocks is a stripped-down, plot-driven, lean and mean piece of direct and muscular storytelling. It never loses sight of what it is: an action crime thriller. The unfolding plot never divulges from the premise, in the way that Smokin' Aces does!
What I am saying is this: In Smokin' Aces, it seemed like the Lucky Charms killers were shooting at each other (and the FBI) was because they were shooting at each other (and the FBI). In other words, it felt like absurdity of the unfolding plot, featuring the Lucky Charms killers, was a way of saying, "never mind," to the premise of the story. As I said before, its like someone inappropriately talking on his cellphone, at a funeral, as the service is going on.
Finally, the film made an odd tonal decision. As I said before, Smokin' Aces was chugging along, as a surface-concerned, plot-driven, action crime thriller, as such. But then, the movie suddenly decides that Ryan Reynolds's character needs a "character-driven" moment, as if to say, "Okay, now its time for some angst and dramatic intensity from Ryan Reynolds."
For those of you who may not have seen the film yet and plan to, I shan't spoil it for you. Suffice it to say that events unfold in such a way as to present Reynolds's character with a dilemma (if I were to describe the circumstances, you would automatically, correctly guess the outcome, thus spoiling it for yourself).
Suffice it to say that, for me, this sudden, angst-filled, dramatic moment struck a discordant note with me.
You know something else, with "Smokin' Aces," you get the Ice-T, Christopher Lambert film of 1997, Mean Guns (also a better film than Smokin' Aces), but without the purpose.
In fact, I'm tempted to say that with Smokin' Aces, I felt like I was watching two different films.
But no, that's not quite right. With "Smokin' Aces," I feel like I was watching a film in the developmental stages, with a cartoon skit spliced into the middle of it. Mean Guns is another film that accomplished much more effectively and efficiently, what the assassins in Smokin' Aces should have tried to accomplish, if that makes sense.
In fact, the Lucky Charms killers should have simply been in another movie: Mean Guns 2. What I'm really saying, then, after all is that Smokin' Aces felt like a patchwork of a movie, that was "all over the shop," to borrow a phrase from the first-rate British movie critic, Mark Kermode.
That'll do it. Thank you so much for reading!
William Thomas on June 04, 2016:
Got it! Thank you, Frank, for the clarification.
Frank Atanacio from Shelton on June 04, 2016:
LOL... I love the review as I said.. but I really did enjoy the movie.. taking nothing away from how you viewed it.. thanks for not shutting me out because I happen to enjoy Smokin Aces...:)
William Thomas on June 04, 2016:
Thank you, Frank. As always, I appreciate it. We'll have to agree to disagree. As I said, to me, this film was "all over the shop."
Frank Atanacio from Shelton on June 03, 2016:
Actually loved this movie too.. great review.. as always winged..:)