11 February 2007

Smokin' Aces

One generally thinks of the plot of a film as being its main purpose - we are watching the movie because somebody wants to tell us a story, and that story is gonna be meaningful, entertaining, enlightening, etc. I am generally a bit of a fascist about narrative structure - I get kind of annoyed when there are long scenes that don't really fit into the narrative arc, I get pissed when portions of the story are left dangling - I relish an intricate structure composed of lots of little pieces that fit into an elegant whole in interesting ways. Also, I generally despise movies that have a huge cast of characters (all of whom I'm supposed to care about) whose stories are being told in parallel - not on principle, but because they're generally so badly done. This movie ought to have annoyed the crap out of me, but as it turns out, I really enjoyed it.

People were thinking of this movie as being like Snatch, or Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, or something Tarantino. It's not. It sort of looks like those movies, because it's a sprawling story of a bunch of wacky people doing very violent things , and you're jumping around between all these stories waiting for the boom, but the thing about those other movies, is they actually have fairly sophisticated plots with very complex relationships between characters. This is not the case here. The relationships between the characters is extremely straight-forward, and doesn't rely on any kind of backstory. These people are only vaguely aware of each other. There's not a lot of suspense. You're not necessarily rooting for one side or another. This is made most clear when two of them, who have developed a more complicated relationship over the course of the film (one nearly killed the other) meet in a parking lot at the end of the movie. This ought to be a somewhat tense encounter, but really, it's just kind of amusing. You aren't really invested in it - they might end up friends, they might not, who knows, who cares. It's a funny scene, but the humor doesn't really come from the relationship between the characters, it comes from each of them individually. The denouement doesn't really move you - it is what it is.

Smokin' Aces is not about the story. The plot in this movie is basically a contrivance employed to get all of these characters in the same place (the scriptwriter would probably make a killer DM, heh heh). So the opening of the movie, which several reviews have complained about, is the set-up - we meet the cast and watch them collect their missions, so to speak, which will get them to the scene of the action, and get a quick rundown of their stats and skills. The premise is fairly simple - Buddy Israel, Vegas magician, is wanted dead by the mob and alive by the cops (apparently the Mob has so little faith in their hired assassins that they hire 5 different ones, just to keep their bases covered). And now the stage is set - we're in Tahoe, where, in the top floor penthouse of a semi-classy hotel, we have Buddy and his crew, and it's a mad scramble to see who will get to him first.

There is, of course, more plot than that. But it's crap and is best just ignored entirely. The "twist" at the end, I'm telling you now, simply doesn't make sense. It's one of those standard tropes of movies of this kind, so you hear it and you're like, "oooh, wow, ok, right" and move along, because you didn't _really_ care that much, but if you see this movie, pause and think about it for a second. It makes no sense.

The biggest problem for movies like this is the ending. If you're making a movie based on, "Ok, so we've got all these people, and we're gonna throw them into a room together and see what happens Go!", there's generally no obvious ending point. And there's an expectation that endings will feel conclusive, like we've all been on this journey together and now we've all learned something and can walk away feeling like the last 2 hours have been spiritually worthwhile. It's unfortunate that Smokin' Aces didn't end with Common carrying Alicia Keys through the rubble***. Yes, it would have been cliche, but you know, I wouldn't have minded. Instead, the final scene was absolute garbage. As one review so delighftully put it, "It doesn't help that the director taps [Ryan] Reynolds to carry the emotional weight of this scene, which is a little like asking Daniel Day Lewis to tell a dick joke."

My major beef with movies of this sort (the reason that I didn't like Traffic, Syriana, Crash, etc) is that trying to bring together an extremely diverse cast in a manageable amount of time generally involves a lot of condensing - they have to find a way to basically summarize a character in a scene or two. The product is usually caricature. You're given the two or three standard traits and you're supposed to fill in the rest based, pretty much, on stereotype - so that's what the characters end up as. What's breathtaking, to me, about this movie, is that the characters actually have depth - they're genuinely interesting. You want to get to know more about them. The movie is interesting because you're watching a bunch of fascinating people, and you want to see what they're going to do in a given situation. And you just kind of want to hang out with them. Thus, you really don't mind that there are plenty of scenes that are pretty much completely superfluous to the rest of the story, because they're interesting, and entertaining. Jason Bateman, for instance, does a great turn as a lawyer who may or may not be a furry. It's a hilarious scene. I have no idea how it fits into the story at large, but I loved it anyhow. The dialogue is, for the most part, fantastic.

And of course, there's the action, by which I mean violence, which is pretty sweet. People don't just get shot, they get blown away. It's neato. There's not a lot of intense hand-to-hand combat, which is sort of a pity, but it's good fun anyhow.

You know, in a way, this movie is similar to The Departed, in that both have are essentially very entertaining, bad movies. But I think I liked Smokin' Aces more, probably because it doesn't purport to be something it's not. It's like all the best parts of The Departed - the moments of comedy where they quirkiness of the characters was put on display, unhindered by the demands of the story. Smokin' Aces, in a way, is all flash and surface - it doesn't make try to make you think about the motivations of the characters, or pick a side to sympathize with, or really care at all. It just offers you an entertaining spectacle. And it does it pretty damn well.

***Though you know, it's kind of a pity that they couldn't quite bring themselves to let her character be a lesbian. Then again, I guess that's been done (Queen Latifah in Set it Off spring immediately to mind). But really, it made Taraji Hensen's character kind of pathetic - she ended up being this forlorn lover rather than a raging badass, and making Alicia Keys' character seem to go fully straight at the end sort of hammered that in - the sobbing lesbian in love with the beautiful straight girl.

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