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Tail Up: Joe Carnahan’s Smokin’ Aces

Written by: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer

ImageBack in the 1980s, a new disorder emerged from the myriad maladies of autism: Asperger syndrome, or AS. Many symptoms indicate AS, but here are a few:

  • Social difficulties
  • Heightened speech, vocabulary and language usage
  • Intense, narrow interests

Joe Carnahan's goofy, hyperactive crime thriller Smokin' Aces makes me think he might have Asperger syndrome.

In the wake of Quentin Tarantino's kooky, paradigm-shifting noir masterpiece Pulp Fiction, many imitators to its quirky throne have come forward, all of them driven by the same cocktail of colorful lowlife characters, twisty plots and vivid dialogue. Unfortunately, very few movies have been able to recapture Taratino's particular (and spectacular) combo of pitch-perfect dialogue and fresh, pulp storytelling, although some movies have come close in different areas and for different reasons.

No surprise here: Smokin' Aces is one of the movies that tried to recapture Pulp Fiction's magic, and it comes close in some places, especially with its Asperger syndrome dialogue. I think Smokin' Aces ultimately fails as a successor to Pulp Fiction, but I love how Pulp Fiction has given Hollywood creative types carte blanche to write and produce movies that are filled with characters that are playable – meaning that while the characters might not be as deep as those from Tolstoy, they're written with so much energy that an actor would have to be comatose not to have a good time playing them.

Case in point: Smokin' Aces begins with a boatload of exposition about the plotline, which involves Las Vegas magician Buddy "Aces" Israel (Jeremy Piven) who gets in deep with the mob. Inevitably, the feds flip him, and as a preventative measure, the mob puts a million-dollar bounty on his life, with the added gruesome wrinkle that the assassin must bring in Aces' heart, too. A rogues' gallery of colorful assassins from the world 'round converge on Aces, who has holed up in a penthouse suite atop a Lake Tahoe resort-casino.

It took me a couple of minutes to write the previous paragraph, which sums up the storyline for the whole movie, yet for some reason, writer-director Joe Carnahan (Narc) devotes about 15 minutes of screentime to the setup. Now, don't get me wrong – it is a hard sell to turn David Copperfield into Sonny Corleone, and they do it with style.

But it's during this opening sequence that we get to see Carnahan's over-eager Asperger syndrome dialogue in full swing. Take this speech from Ben Affleck's bail bondsman character, who introduces most of the movie's assassins, including a trio of redneck mayhem merchants named the Tremor brothers:

Well, the Tremor brothers go rip-shit riot on the whole fucking place. Seven dead, 28 wounded. Just to get this one fucking guy. In the course of the melee, one of them gets shot in the neck – he passes out. Another one catches blowback from a jammed piece – he's temporarily blinded. Third one gets a bullet lodged in his back – he can't walk. They're speed-freak, neo-Nazi assholes who read and recite Mein Kampf like it was Mother Goose. They're meaner than shit, they're dumber than hell, and these motherfuckers will go megaton at the drop of a hat. 

I compare Carnahan's dialogue to the off-center speech of AS patients because of its unexpected usage. Author Augusten Burroughs writes about his AS-stricken brother in his memoir Magical Thinking, and as an example of typical AS-speak, Burroughs says that his brother, instead of saying "My dog is happy today," would say "My dog is tail-up today."

The characters in Carnahan's movie can't go two lines without saying their dogs are tail-up. Just glance through Affleck's speech above, and you'll find the following wonderful turns-of-phrase:

  • Go rip-shit riot.
  • In the course of the melee.
  • Another one catches blowback.
  • These motherfuckers will go megaton.

Affleck delivers this speech and all of its "tail-up" turns-of-phrase over a visual introduction of the Tremor brothers, who look like a cross between the Charlie Daniels Band and Master Blaster from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. The scene is great, but it's typical of the embarrassing amount of energy Carnahan put into this movie, and I stress the word "embarrassing" because I feel kind of embarrassed for Carnahan when I watch this scene.

Why do I feel embarrassed? Because the scene reads, watches and feels like the pubescent, jumpy, over-eager logorrhea of a ninth-grade creative writing student. All that's missing is for Carnahan to step in front of the camera and ask the audience, point-blank, "Aren't these characters awesome?" Furthermore, by having another, minor character (played by Ben Affleck, no less), introduce the Tremor brothers in hushed tones of fear and reverence, he distracts us from the over-written implausibility of these guys. I mean, are we really supposed to believe that three inbred, disabled, sociopathic rednecks could compete for world-class hitman contracts? Or did Carnahan simply get too caffed-up while writing his script? I opt for the latter.

But here's the thing: Scripts like these are enormous fun for actors to play, and in the course of writing his over-caffeinated story, Carnahan managed to populate his movie with several scenes that are simply perfect. To wit:

Midway through the movie, Aces' right-hand man, Sir Ivy, finds out that Aces plans to rat him out to the feds, and he confronts him:

Sir Ivy: What'd you say to Mecklen?
Buddy 'Aces' Israel: What I've always been sayin', let's make the fuckin' deal.
Sir Ivy: You see … this is one of the rare moments, where your ass gets to be completely honest … and if I'm asking you what you said to Mecklen, assume the shit is rhetorical, assume I already know.
Buddy 'Aces' Israel: What do you see right now? You see exactly, and only what I choose to show you. That is illusion Ivy, that is the lie that I tell your eyes, makin' the magic happen, in the moment, in that split second … but seeing behind this motherfucker and knowing … that it's all bullshit.

Because I've never had the chance to write this in an essay for this site before, I will now: Will Patton is awesome in Armageddon. Yeah, he's awesome in that one weepy scene where he talks with his estranged wife, but he's even more awesome in the scene where Bruce Willis is rounding up his drilling team. The NASA officials ask Willis where Patton's character would go once he got off the rig, and Willis instantly says, "The craps table. Caesar's Palace. Las Vegas." The camera cuts to the craps table, and we see Patton win a bunch of money. Next time you watch this movie, watch Patton closely.

His hands are shaking.

Will Patton had one wordless scene to play in a big, dumb summer action movie, and he poured enough heart and soul into it to tacitly give us, the audience, the clues needed to figure out why he and his wife had gotten divorced: he's a gambling addict. Patton did his fucking homework.

Carnahan cast two musicians in Smokin' Aces, and they're both awesome. Alicia Keys delivers a memorably sexy performance as a bisexual sniper who breaks her lover's heart, while the artist known as Common plays Sir Ivy.

Maybe you read the scene between Sir Ivy and Aces Israel above and didn't think much of it. If you did, fair enough. But I encourage you to watch this scene on film, because like Will Patton, Common did his homework, and equipped with what I suspect is a fraction of Jeremy Piven's acting training, Common brought flinty-eyed anger and diaphragm-deep betrayal to his performance.

I’ll close out my analysis with a look at another perfect scene, which involves two cast members of ABC’s desert-island X-Files, Lost: Matthew Fox and Nestor Carbonell. In this scene, Fox plays a stuffy, mullet-headed hotel official who has the bad luck to wind up as a victim of Carbonell’s assassin character. Carbonell needs an access key to the penthouse suite, so he kills Fox, but as Fox is dying, Carbonell implores him to close his eyes, saying, “You don’t want this face to be the last thing you see on earth. Heaven might hold it against you.”

If memory serves, Matthew Fox had one free day to shoot a scene for this movie, and they came up with this gem of a scene. To be sure, Smokin’ Aces is an indulgent, over-eager, over-written, over-directed and over-produced movie, but one thing it isn’t is stingy. With the best of intentions, Carnahan and his creative team gave us a delightfully generous movie that always has its tail up.