There was a lot of hype about this film, not just from the numerous posters that Joe Carnahan has been leaking us from his site, but from the different trailers that we've seen. Those trailers were filled with action, stars, great lines, fast paced editing, and bags of style. The trailers make you think this is going to be balls out action and you're going to be breathless throughout. They make you think there's going to be gunplay and stylised violence galore.
So when I started watching there was a moment of disappointment and slight confusion. It is all there in certain scenes, but there's so much more, and to go with it there's a tightly packed script that's extremely well written. Yes, there's a stonkingly strong story here to be had as well, and some superb performances that really draw you in. Prepare yourself for a tense and wild ride.
Once again huge thanks to Edinburgh Ocean Vue Cinema for helping out with these reviews. They're a good bunch there and the lunchtime hot dogs were just perfect. Great multiplex and superbly located too. Now, to Smokin' Aces.
In the opening scenes we meet the FBI Agents Carruthers, played by Ray Liotta, and Messner, played by Ryan Reynolds. Immediately you're in the thick of their partnership and you see the friendship they have between them. Almost instantly you believe that they really are good friends. It's not just being played out on screen, you really can feel it, and it's in the script and between the two actors Liotta and Reynolds who play this scene out excellently.
The opening scenes also give you a sense of how this film is going to play out, there will be a lot more noise going on in each scene than you're used to, multiple things happening at once for you to catch hold of and get pulled along with the story, and all just as much as the magician wants you to see, and I don't mean Buddy Israel.
Israel is a well known showman, he's a big stage Vegas illusionist who's involved with the mob, so much so that he's started working his way up, but then suddenly plummeting down. Things have turned bad for him and he's now got little choice. Deal with the FBI and rat out the Mafia or…and this is where we join him. Hidden away in the penthouse of a hotel far from Vegas, with a million dollar bounty on his head and seemingly no way out. Everyone's after him, including the FBI.
We're introduced to the main characters quickly and extremely stylishly using flashbacks and explanations from the Deputy Director of the FBI, played by the amazing Andy Garcia, to the two Agents Carruthers and Messner who are going to be sent to secure and retrieve Israel for the FBI protection programme.
We start with Israel and move through the major players, flying from assassin to assassin, catching a glimpse of their work and realising that this is going to be tough for Israel.
The scenes are fast and there's a lot of information to take in, but they are wonderfully filmed and edited, and the characters and their setups are superb. This can be classed as one of the few times I liked Ben Affleck's acting, and I was amazed at Jason Bateman who provides one of the funniest performances of the film.
It's not long before these assassins are arriving at the hotel, and we're cutting back and forth between them and Carnahan is building the tension ever upwards. At one point I was wondering how they would all catch up with each other, because I was expecting to see them meet in one big gunfight. However it's not going to be over that quickly and the action is pulled out with the tension building over and over in the audience.
Neither does the action come too quickly either, the build up is played out for tension and surprise, and it works every time. I found myself sitting there anticipating the action, and at times gripping my hands together tightly waiting for the characters to explode into action.
When the action starts, it hits hard and fast, and keeps hitting again and again. One of the interesting aspects of this is that the violence is not as comically wild as I expected it might be, it's actually far more brutal and realistic, although it is definitely still wild and splattered with humour.
The scenes of violence and gun fights have far more weight and brevity than you'd expect, and pay off with some strikingly strong emotional scenes. Saying that though, there are still scenes that will make you uncomfortable, make you pull back a little, or that will give you a huge grin or an open, aghast mouth. The action really is that crazy at times.
Carnahan keeps this tension and excitement flowing along with the story and the camera which is ever moving in the scene and from shot to shot. He delivers an excellent script and demonstrates superb direction, and it's particularly good as he holds together all the threads of quite a complex plot without letting any slacken.
The cinematography is strong too, the style and boldness to the filming, and the nice little touches are excellent. There are little moments like the elevator scene with Carruthers and the assassin where the agent is in perfect focus and the assassin is shot hazily in the gold reflections, or the bold camera and CGI work as we home in on Israel in his Penthouse suite. The shots of Israel in his bathroom doing more and more coke, his eyes streaming, totally messed up, while an assassin dispenses with one of his bodyguards are excellently framed.
Something did strike me as I look back on some of these scenes. The film has a feel of a comic book to some of the framing and motion. I don't mean as in kiddies comics, but in the hard, violent, adult comics. Every shot seems to have been carefully thought through and framed, and this lends so much to the film.
There's not just strength in the camera moving within a scene, but also the edits between scenes. We'll transition from point to point through a clever visual connection like a finger on a lift button to a finger on a doorbell, or one character starting a sentence cutting fast to another scene where another character finishes the sentence off in a different context.
The editing is another strong area of the film, it does a fantastic job of keeping the pace going and keeping you on your toes, as well as keeping all the threads moving together, flowing along with the film and keeping the timeline pretty much intact.
All these aspects of the film are cleverly used to keep the pace going and to pull you along with the film, rather than you either running alongside it, or in the worst scenario, you being ahead of the film.
The scripting is a huge strength, dialogue is snappy and realistic, there's never something that appears out of character or sounds hollow or flat. It's full of passion for and from characters, from everything from the scenes of fighting to those of heartbreak, and what scenes those were.
It all keeps the tension going and building sequence after sequence, and if you do guess a twist in the story it really doesn't affect the enjoyment. The journey and the characters are the most satisfying aspects about the film.
There's one scene I really have to mention, something I almost forgot about, it's the scene where Matthew Fox and one of the Assassins meet. That scene was so powerful it held me to it. There was a stunned almost disbelieving moment here, and this scene shows that the film isn't all fun and style, there are some incredibly painful and serious moments to it.
There's an interesting aspect of the story that I really like, there's no clear hero or main character from start to finish. Characters come and go that you wouldn't expect and it doesn't particularly follow the traditional plot progression, and I loved that.
That takes me to the acting, something which I'm surprised to say is at such a high level throughout the film, there's not a poor performance to be had.
Piven plays Israel spectacularly, and I think this is perhaps his best performance ever, something I'd put down to one scene in particular where he realises what a predicament he's in. The realisation and his actions afterwards are consuming, not just for the character but for the audience too. The emotion at that moment is only in sight by that of Reynolds in a previous scene.
I've never really seen Reynolds as anything but a comedy actor, goofing off to college humour, but this performance turned me around, and for two sequences in particular. There's the scene he and the FBI Agents storm the lift and he has his moment of realisation. You are immediately drawn to him and can feel his pain, empathising so easily with him. His emotive performance from there on is utterly convincing, and when later when he talks with the Deputy Director, you can just feel the pain and confusion inside of him, and see him working through the options to his final conclusion.
Liotta and Alicia Keys were quite surprising. Liotta because his character was so natural and restrained, very real and engaging unlike many of the characters he gets typed into. Keys surprised me because she's good, not utterly fantastic, but there's some real acting ability in there which will hopefully out. Oh, and she is lovely.
I'm just going to mention Garcia, I think he's a stunning actor. His performance was effortless and he just eats up that screen. Oh, and I have to say what a hilarious cameo from Fox, it just shows that this film has laughter in it too.
For me though it was Piven and Reynolds who were the real standout performances here, Piven shines as his drug fuelled day just continues to descend into chaos and darkness, and Reynolds exudes dramatic actor as he experiences one of the worst days of his life, and perhaps the most important.
Overall I was totally taken in by the film and felt the tension and emotion in the script. It's a great story which doesn't add stylised violence for no reason, there's a seriousness and weight to them, with almost always some consequence to be had. The action is wild, the writing, direction and editing superb, and the actors are very good with some excellent performances adding layers to the film, and what an ending. Joe Carnahan is leaping to the fore as one of my favourite writer/directors, and you only have to watch this superbly wild film to see why.
Update: You know I forgot to mention the superb soundtrack throughout the film. There's some really strong tunes in there and it really does help to heighten the tension and the mood.
Disappointing, and it seems to get less inviting with each viewing. It's not made any better by the fact I'm almost finished the book and I'm thoroughly unimpressed. Once you see that Lector is just a boy and how he was created he's not that scary anymore.
School for Scoundrels
I was surprised by this trailer as it actually looks quite funny and a load of laughs. I was particularly tickled by the idea of the school and the teacher's unlikely methods. Billy Bob Thornton, Jon Heder and Michael Clarke Duncan star.
This looks like a re-edited trailer as it has more footage and even the storming Eye of the Tiger theme by Survivor playing during scenes of the big fight. This had me stirred in the seat and dying to see it.
I don't mean anything negative by this, but it was the same trailer as before. Still a cool trailer that had me giggling though.