Is it Monday again? I feel like every other day it's "24" night. Well, I hope everyone had a good weekend. Mine was good. Saw "Hot Fuzz" on Friday, went up to Oxford to celebrate my grandmother's 80th birthday, watched "The Bourne Identity" in my folks' new, totally-awesome but still-in-progress home theater, then on Sunday I watched "Smokin' Aces" on DVD.
"Hot Fuzz" wasn't bad, but it wasn't nearly as fun as "Shaun of the Dead". "Hot Fuzz" is intended as a parody of over-the-top eighties action movies, specifically, the buddy cop movie, and it succeeds well enough at that, but setting such a parody in the English countryside sounds funnier on paper than it is in practice. Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg (who played Shaun in "Shaun of the Dead" and plays the hero, Nicholas Angel, in this one) wrote a smart screenplay that sends up the excesses of action directors like Bay and Scott (of the Tony variety), sometimes brilliantly. One instance, early on in the film, occurs when Angel hauls an assortment of small-town troublemaking kids into the police station. The mugshot montage that follows is a dead-on parody of Tony Scott's overblown, degraded, hyper-frenetic montages from "Man on Fire", right down to the ominous guitar strums. Very funny. There are a couple other really great moments in the movie, but "Hot Fuzz"'s high notes are usually drowned out by a kind of cheery ploddingness courtesy of a script that too often defers to formula. I'm sure some less-than-good elements of the film were intended as high-concept satire of the movies Wright and Co. clearly love, but come off simply as a tired retread of what's come before. By the end, I was so weary of all the frenetic cutting and satirical montages, all I wanted was an actual scene without a scrim of irony placed over it. All in all, though, "Fuzz" gets by on its good intentions and charm and a few good jokes, but works only as a forgettable diversion.
"Smokin' Aces", on the other hand, has got way bigger problems. "Smokin' Aces", director Joe Carnahan's long-awaited sophomore effort to "Narc", hardly proclaims the arrival of a new film visionary that "Narc" portended. It's a big misfire and it would deserve total dismissal if there weren't something there, beneath all the flash and meaningless style, that hints at how very close to worthwhile this movie could have been. I don't know if the "Aces" script needed a second or third draft to make it work, or if Carnahan needs another film or two to hit his stride and figure out what he's trying to say, but throughout the movie his potential as a filmmaker is there, clearly visible, and part of the reason "Aces" is such a disappointment is that his material never rises to the level of his talent.
The A-plot's simple enough. A federal witness, Buddy "Aces" Israel, has been targeted by the mob for assassination because of all the baddies he'll implicate. The mob puts out a one million dollar contract on Israel, which then attracts a motley assortment of hit men to kill Israel in his penthouse suite in Lake Tahoe. A.O. Scott said about Robert Rodriguez recently in his review of "Grindhouse", that Rodriguez's "energy . . . often outstrips his taste." I think the same can be said for Carnahan, much to the film's detriment. Here's a good example.
Ben Affleck, Peter Berg and Martin Henderson are bail bondsmen who want to bring Israel in. We meet them in a bar while Affleck rattles off some exposition. They are interesting characters. Their rich histories are briefly alluded to and I wanted to learn more about them. Another trio of characters, a group of inarticulate berserkers who get off on killing indiscriminately, are hired to kill Israel. After the 20 minutes of exposition has been dispensed with, we find Affleck, Berg and Henderson standing in a parking lot beside their car preparing to start their Israel-getting operation. The berserker characters drive past and out of frame, their percussive music booming. After a moment, they reverse back into frame and mow down the three bail bondsmen. It is audacious and, admittedly, counts as one of the best laughs in the movie. (There are few.) The berserkers linger for a while, and then move on. The fact that the flashy but ultimately uninteresting berserker characters survive, while the comparatively complex bail bondsmen characters are unceremoniously slaughtered, says a lot about Carnahan's aims with this film. He would rather see these three grunting thugs (who, owing to their implausibility as characters, have no stories to tell), emerge screaming from an elevator with chainsaws and shotguns, than he would like to follow three actual characters (and real actors) interact with the world he's created, speaks volumes about Carnahan's judgment as a screenwriter. After the cheap laughs derived from the senselessness of the bondsmens' demise fade away, a disappointed boredom sets in, and never really goes away.
If his only sin were style over substance, that would be one thing, but Carnahan can't find a way to make "Smokin' Aces" make a lick of sense. Besides being wildly implausible, much of the story is incomprehensible, not to mention stupid. If "Aces" had been a big flashy dumbshit movie about a bunch of hitmen going after one guy in Lake Tahoe, cool. That was the movie I wanted to see. But then Carnahan adds in his own bullshit FBI/Mob subplot "twist, ostensibly to give the film some weight, and this subplot, along with his own countless missteps, help sink the movie. Particularly terrible, the end of the film purports to be a quiet counterpoint to all the bombast that's preceded it, but because of this ridiculous subplot, the operatics of the film's last moments are completely phony, the emotion Carnahan wants us to feel (the swelling score rising helpfully) entirely unearned. "Boondock Saints" is a good film to compare "Aces" to. Both films deal in cheap nihilism, are stylistically violent, are overblown, make no sense, eschew substance for the "cool shot", and both are terrible. What's different is that Carnhan's skills as a director are exponentially better than "Boondock" director Troy Duffy's. He's just poorly served by his skills as a screenwriter. Time to tell that agent to start looking for new material, Joe.
(Also, Andy Garcia's southern accent in this film is so mind-bogglingly awful, that it made me think back and reevaluate his entire career as a film actor, looking for a reason he's worked for so long. Not sure I get it. It is soooo bad. Keanu Reeves in "Dracula" or "Devil's Advocate" bad.)
In other Crane-related news, my brother had some automotive misfortune last week. His truck engine burned up. Click here for a couple photos he took with his cell phone camera.