starring Ben Affleck, Jason Bateman, Common, Andy Garcia
written and directed by Joe Carnahan
starring Liam Neeson, Pierce Brosnan, Angie Harmon, Anjelica Huston
screenplay by Abby Everett Jaques & David Von Ancken
directed by David Von Ancken
by Walter Chaw Director Joe Carnahan replicates a heart attack in the prologue of Narc, and David Von Ancken, in the action-packed opening to his feature debut Seraphim Falls, simulates a mildly hysterical bout of narcolepsy--but more on that later. Carnahan's third film, Smokin' Aces, is drawing a lot of unfavourable comparisons to Guy Ritchie's gangster sagas, but the real lineage can be traced to whatever strain of viral ADD infected Tony Scott. The film is so like Scott's Domino in its visual affectations and uniform incompetence that the two pictures could exchange scenes willy-nilly without losing a step. (Compare it to Wayne Kramer's similarly canted Running Scared for a mini-primer on when lawless misanthropy and the coked-up editor aesthetic can be wielded with delighted, visceral purpose as opposed to simply wielded.) Ultimately, Smokin' Aces is little more than a parade of sad "didn't you used to be..." stunt cameos installed for the missing "edge" that buckets of blood, rains of bullets, and a few power tools seem incapable of manifesting. With Narc, Carnahan showed real growth from his directorial debut (Blood, Guts, Bullets & Octane, which is actually not unlike the new one at all). Now he's just showing off.
The problems stretch back to the Burt Reynolds-level cleverness of the title, with "Aces" referring to Buddy "Aces" Israel (Jeremy Piven), a perpetually post-ejaculate scumbag who earns a million-dollar bounty on his head, thus inspiring a Looney Tunes gallery of improv-troupe creations to drop everything in pursuit of their quarry. High-concept in the basest definition of the term, the film would fall apart with a sigh if it weren't held together, however tenuously, by jump-cuts, zooms, slo-mo--the whole kitchen sink of obfuscating choices courtesy an artist trying way too hard to be au courant by imitating a style of film that hasn't been fresh since around the time that Tarantino hit the scene. The only saving grace of a picture so crowded and perverse as to be unsalvageable is when Carnahan uses Ben Affleck as a literal ventriloquist's dummy, delivering in one stroke the full weight of actual post-modernism the rest of Smokin' Aces labours to manufacture. I suspect the real problem with the film isn't its pride in its insincerity, but that it's a project born of Carnahan's frustration and bile at being dumped from Mission: Impossible III, making it simultaneously too cool for a club of which it desperately wants to be a member. That means it hates the audience it wants to impress, marking it as pathetic more than anything else; that means that for all its fireworks, it's as mind-numbing as a metronome.
Seraphim Falls, monotonous in an entirely different way, is much ado about a retarded sermon concerning brotherhood and the toll of revenge and violence that nobody over the mental/emotional age of twelve really needs. It's Nevada circa 1868, and hairy ex-Union Captain Gideon (Pierce Brosnan) is eating the carcass of some kind of rabbit-lobster hybrid when he's shot at by an unseen assailant. What follows is a lengthy (twenty-minute), almost completely wordless chase through the snowy wilderness so unlikely and protracted that it's pretty funny; would that the rest of the film, also funny, at least have made a cursory attempt at heat. Alas, Von Ancken takes pains to crib from everything from The Outlaw Josey Wales to Les Misérables, where the latter is concerned going so far as to cast Valjean from Billie August's ponderous adaptation, Liam Neeson, in the role of this film's Javert: a relentless, righteous avatar of justice who quails at the end, realizing the consumptive futility of his obsession. Alas, Seraphim Falls, it probably goes without saying, isn't in the same league as Victor Hugo. And while John Toll's cinematography is often breathtaking, it, too, struggles to supply theme where the film hasn't; there's a difference, unexplored here, between elegiac and overcast, and Toll's a long, long way from working with Terrence Malick. (By the time the great Wes Studi and Anjelica Huston pop up in quirky, weird-West mythic cameos, the ship has officially sailed.) Seraphim Falls is too drunk on its epic sensibilities to recognize that it's a collection of genre clichés employed to too little of import. Originally published: January 26, 2007.