Smokin' Aces

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I rented Smokin' Aces last night with a friend, looking for a mindless action movie to wind down my Memorial Day weekend, and here’s what I don’t understand: Why would you a take a really good action-movie concept – rival groups of hitmen competing to off a mob witness who’s holed up atop a Lake Tahoe casion – load it up with a stellar ensemble cast, and then turn it over to Joe Carnahan, a youngish director of no discernible talent whose main claim to fame is having been tapped, and then un-tapped, to direct Mission: Impossible III? Carnahan's last (and first) feature film was Narc, a dour, mediocre cop noir that won some critical praise by layering a patina of brutality over what was essentially Training Day without a sense of humor or Denzel Washington. Smokin' Aces is rather more fun, but only because of the cast and the concept; Carnahan loads the movie with bells and whistles, going for an overstuffed Ocean’s 11 meets Quentin Tarantino meets Guy Ritchie vibe, but he seems completely unaware of what a good thing he has in the "may the best hitman win" plot. By the end of the movie, the various weird and interesting hitpeople - the lesbian assassins, the master of disguise, the nihilist with the burned off fingers, the crazy neo-Nazis - have been reduced to footnotes, and the climax of the movie isn't the crazy action sequence atop the hotel (ideally involving a helicopter or two and some rocket-propelled grenades) that the story seems to building toward, but a talky expositional scene in a hospital, in which a plot twist at once predictable and hopelessly byzantine is revealed, and Ryan Reynolds (one of my favorite actors, wasted in a straight-man role) is forced to choose between his career and his honor. Or some BS like that. Where's Michael Bay when you need him?

When it comes to plot in action movies, less is more; when it comes to action, more is more. The final twenty minutes of Smokin' Aces gets that rule exactly backward.

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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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