Sunday, March 11, 2007

What Hath Quentin Wrought?

This piece was published in Providence Monthly Magazine in the March, 2007 issue in the "EYES WIDE OPEN" column.

The Quentin Tarantino story remains fresh to movie buffs, vidkids, cinephiles, aspiring screenwriters, wannabe Spielberg’s, fame seeking academic scribes, ambitious stand-ups, movie-movie freaks, and just about any other geek or culture-gulcher vampire. Smart ass video store clerk, half-ass actor bones up on classic films, genre gems, exploitation movies, foreign cinema, and everything in between, smokes enough weed to help him freeze frame and rewatch the good, the bad, and the ugly, sells some audacious screenplays (Natural Born Killers, True Romance) and manages to both pen and direct his own, miniscule budget film (Reservoir Drugs), follow its cult status up with a genuine mainstream hit (Pulp Fiction), and writes his own, highly personalized ticket in the enchanting kingdom of Hollywoodland—He’s soon declared the zeitgeist of the 80’s, and he parlays this into romances with starlets he couldn’t have even chauffeured around before, appears as an actor in films, TV, and even the theater, grabs some big bucks as a highly acclaimed script doctor, , hangs (and smokes) with the Wu-Tang Clan who dub him QT, plops his imprimatur on re-releases of cult movies and Honk Kong features, guest directs network TV, smokes some more weed for the hell of it, makes only the movies he wants to, and generally self-defines a new brand of cheeky, self-reflexive, retro-cool, modernist, neo-nihilist, popcult film /collage wherein elements derived (and underlined) from such disparate film types as blaxploitation, chop socky, classic film noir, the movie brat seventies, Italian neo-realism and French New Wave all get tossed in the same popcorn stew with eye-popping, mind-spinning results.

It’s a beautiful tale, more satisfying than getting to the sixteenth realm of some obscure video game, knowing the order of release and the record titles of Lee Hazlewood’s career, or posting that hilarious video of yer roomie stubbing his big toe on YouTube. Therein lies the problem. As good as QT had been (and his work has largely been first class, despite his obnoxious persona), the world of contempo cinema is filled with the sons and little bro’s of QT, all of ‘em operating with his bag of tricks, virtually know of them succeeding anywhere near his level. The films are too numerous to name (Killing Zoe, Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, The Way of the Gun, Hostel among the most talked about), all snarky, blackly comic, in-yer-face, amalgams of carnage, talkiness, and gleeful self-consciousness. Smokin’ Aces is the latest entry in the QT sweepstakes, a glory hole of a movie posing a sleek, eye-winking, provocative cool- daddy film.

In 2002 Joe Carnahan wrote and directed Narc (with Ray Liotta and Jason Patric) a hardscrabble cop film that seemed to owe much to Marty Scorsese and the dark side of Mad Francis Coppola, a movie that delivered on it’s own promise—a cop thriller that was effectively (and subtly) brutal, self-contained, and poetically bleak. Carnahan has proved he can write and direct with panache, but with Smokin’ Aces he’s seems intent in upping the ante, striving for a QT-like combo of speed-tawkin’ dialogue, big dollops of absurdity in plot, character and action, and a carnage-for carnage’s sake sensibility that is remarkably off-putting.

Smokin’ Aces plotline is beyond simple. One Buddy “Aces” Israel (Jeremy Piven), a mob-connected Vegas magician and all-time scumbag has run afoul of the baddies, resulting in a million-dollar contract on his head, which in turn makes decide to go all cheese-eater and turn state’s evidence against the mob. Then the fun begins, with Carnahan unleashing a rogue’s gallery of comic book-styled figures all with some stake in the rabid, cocaine-fueled, profusely sweaty Buddy. Admittedly, some of the cartoonish characters are funny, at least in their conception, (there are nazi hit men, black lesbians assassins, FBI guys, mob lawyers, henchman, bail bondsman, ex-coppers, a disguise artist and a psycho sadist) and some of the actors who traipse through these caricatures (Jason Bateman, Ray Liotta, Ben Affleck, Common, Alicia Keys, Any Garcia, Peter Berg, Ryan Reynolds, Taraji Henson, Nestor Carboneli) hare obviously having a ball. Of course Piven (with a scary fright-mop on top of his skull) doesn’t know the meaning of low gear, and his Sammy Davis-meets-Elisha Cook combo of desperate cockiness meters up well into the high ranges of outrageousness. It’s funny but over baked, like Smokin’ Aces itself.

Already out in the movie houses a few weeks now, it’s obvious that Smokin’ Aces isn’t going to catch on, QT-like, and fill the pop culture landscape with new phraseology and reference points. (However, don’t rule out the effect of its DVD or cable release.) It packs the kinda mixture of flamboyance and obvious violence that contempo audience seems to crave, and, although filled with smart, witty bits, it shoots itself in the gut with an over reliance on the formulaic hipster smorgasbord of blood, irony, and hopped-up immorality. Joe Carnahan doesn’t need to be Quentin Tarantino, nor does any other young filmmaker with chops. By the time the firepower, multi-killings, maiming, and tongue-in-cheek ultra-violence clears, Smoking’ Aces is more appalling than appealing, proving once again that it’s a little tough to spill any tears on the filthy floors once you’ve made the decision to enter the whorehouse.

No comments: