Tenacious D and the Pick of Destiny

Starring: Ben Affleck, Andy Garcia and Ray Liotta. Written and directed by: Joe Carnahan.
Running Time: 106 mins.
Rated: Rated R.
An argument can be made for violence in films. Cinema mirrors the world, and whether we like it or not, violence is a part of life. During the 1930s, most nations including Britain, America, Australia, and Germany had film codes that regulated what people could see on the screen. Violence, like sex, was strictly monitored, and only a moral or uplifting view of the world was allowed. But this did nothing to prevent the horrors of World War Two.

Films, however, can sometimes be a guide to the tenor of the times, and this is nowhere more apparent than in Joe Carnahan's brutally violent 'action comedy', Smokin' Aces.

Joe Carnahan is a Californian filmmaker whose first film Blood, Guns, Bullets, and Octane (1998) premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. His second film, Narc (2002), was a gritty, fast action police thriller that overcame stereotypes with interesting characterisations and powerful acting. Carnahan was hailed as an exciting new talent. But Smokin' Aces shows how quickly talent can be sabotaged by success.

Despite its convoluted storytelling, the plot of Smokin' Aces is relatively simple. Buddy 'Aces' Israel (Jeremy Piven) is a sleazy Vegas illusionist with links to the Mob, who falls foul of his powerful benefactor Primo Sparazzo (Joseph Ruskin), when he seeks to become a major player.

Sparazzo sends out a rumour that he is offering one million dollars to anyone who kills Israel and brings him the small time gangster/magician's heart. Aces meanwhile is holed up in the penthouse suite of the Nomad Casino at Lake Tahoe in Nevada, where he is waiting to tie up a deal with Deputy Director Stanley Locke (Andy Garcia) of the FBI, to turn state's evidence and avoid a prison sentence.

When news of Sparazzo's bounty sends an assortment of psychopathic killers of both sexes to despatch Aces in a multiplicity of horrendous ways (singer Alicia Keyes plays a 'lesbo' who wears camouflage fatigues as a signal that it's cool now for women to murder like men), Locke sends his top agents Richard Messner (Ryan Reynolds) and Donald Carruthers (Ray Liotta) to protect the dissolute Israel, who passes the time with orgies.

In this he's joined by gooks like Australia's Joel Edgerton (barely recognisable as Hugo), and there is any number of apocalyptic battles in the elevators abutting Israel's penthouse suite, that makes his palatial rooms look like the fields of Armageddon.

But 'nothing is what it seems', of course - except the exploitative nature of the whole enterprise.

Smokin' Aces sets itself up as a spoof or parable for our times. The 'surprise' ending has been interpreted by some as a critique of the Iraq War, which may account for Aces' last name. But in reality it is nothing of the sort. The violent, implausible, silly, and sadistic storyline has no other point than to appeal to the very worst instincts of testosterone-laden young men, and milk them of their money. Smokin' Aces will no doubt take millions at the box office. It just seems a pity that such a competent filmmaker as Carnahan is reduced to this kind of filmmaking to do so.

Mrs Jan Epstein is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.