SMOKIN’ ACES And The Perils Of Emotion For The Professional Killer

Taraji P. Henson, hitwoman with a heart.

Proud Mary comes out this week. Get your tickets here!

For the professional killer, detachment is everything: to be emotional is to be vulnerable, puncturing amorality with empathy and clouding the cold calculations of the hit. Yet the job itself worries at the soul, as if there’s only a finite amount of death-dealing it can tolerate before baring itself in an emotional outpouring and a burning of bridges which marks open season for enemies and allies alike.

So it goes in Proud Mary, produced by and starring Taraji P. Henson: as a hired killer for the Boston mob, Mary Goodwin’s discovery that she orphaned a young boy unleashes a wave of guilt which washes through her professional detachment all the way to her maternal instincts, causing her to renounce her way of life and take the boy under her wing, her former family in pursuit.

This isn’t Henson’s first hitwoman rodeo, following as it does her pivotal role as Sharice Watters in Joe Carnahan’s 2007 contract killer clusterfuck Smokin’ Aces, which finds weaselly illusionist and budding mobster Buddy “Aces” Israel holed up in a Lake Tahoe hotel as his lawyer negotiates with the FBI for immunity, unaware of the motley crew of killers closing in on his penthouse hideout in pursuit of a million-dollar bounty issued by Sparazza, the dying Vegas mob boss he betrayed.

These simple plot mechanics provide a platform for Carnahan to exorcise the frustrations of 15 fruitless months spent developing Mission: Impossible III, the writer/director revelling in the freedom to give full vent to his sensibilities and emptying pent-up ideas onto the screen along with the endless ammunition in a no-holds-barred display, fused together with precision cutting of its stylish, kinetic photography and dialogue.

Which is not to say it’s all mindless violence. Carnahan takes his time moving the pieces into place, the first half of the movie investing as much in character moments as exposition, fleshing out the heightened reality of his movie’s world with a parade of grotesques and assigning distinctive cinematic aesthetics to each of the groups which embody the twin pillars around which the movie is structured: partners divided and incomplete information.

The central schism in the Mafia that drives the story is full of secrets held by Sparazza, and it’s these which ultimately shatter the fraternity of the FBI as the ultimate fate of deep undercover agent Freeman Heller is revealed, along with the cost of keeping that secret. In turn, Israel shatters his own entourage by betraying his henchman Sir Ivy, finding himself all alone with the unraveling delusions of his desperation.

Also alone is the last of the bail bondsmen sent to retrieve Israel at the behest of a porn-addled alcoholic lawyer, in over their heads and oblivious to the chaos heading their way, shooting them up and dumping them in the lake before they even get in the game.

That chaos is wrought by the Tremor Brothers, neo-Nazi maniacs whose anarchic extemporisation rejects the idea of information-gathering altogether, in contrast to the methodical approach of Pasquale Acosta, who fits together the pieces of a plan as he goes, relying on his wits. The other solo player, the almost wordless Sloot, displays both adaptability and preparation as he hides his scars beneath an array of disguises, changing his meticulous plan the moment a better option presents itself, getting closest of all to Israel as a result.

It’s Watters and Sykes, though, Henson paired with Alicia Keys in her film debut, who form the movie’s beating heart, lighting up the screen with sass from the get-go as they meet with their pimp-coated go-between over soul food, and it’s in this scene that the first hint of the ambiguity underlying the two women’s relationship emerges, Watters’ arm casually draped across the back of the booth suggesting they’re not just partners in crime.

Throughout their scenes together Henson leans right into this coding, Watters’ gaze landing on her “baby girl” in adoration, her tone as flirtatious as her body language, her distaste for Sykes’ plan to penetrate the penthouse by infiltrating its regular supply of hookers expressed with a mixture of possessiveness and fear for her safety before making a joke of the moment and appealing to a straight-laced hotel receptionist to get more woke.

Rather than a source of salacious exploitation, this character development becomes the emotional engine of the second half of the movie as the hit goes down. From her lookout in a hotel room across the street, ready to provide covering fire with a .50 caliber sniper rifle (an image which has a very different resonance in 2018), Watters voyeuristically watches through the scope as Sykes dons her hooker disguise and weaponry, insisting “I don’t want to be killing no women, no matter how they make their living,” but the conversation is less flirtatious, an affirmation of their friendship and that they have one another’s back, even as the camera lingers on Sykes’ glistening skin.

In the fog of war that follows, Watters breaks that golden rule of detachment: separated from her partner, a shot-up radio and sheer distance rendering her information incomplete, she spies a body in a lobby and presumes the worst, her emotions overtaking her and expressing themselves in an undirected fusillade that tears the place apart, Henson digging deep into personal tragedy to lend Watters an uncontrollable rage. It’s a deeply affecting moment at the movie’s climax, a response to all the lives and loves wasted along the way.

However, she doesn’t know the body was one of the hookers, ironically enough accidentally shot by Sykes and indistinguishable from her at a distance. Sykes is safe in the arms of Sir Ivy and leaving the carnage behind, the movie permitting these two characters alone a happy ending.

The movie cuts away as a single shot rings out, leaving Watters’ ending as ambiguous as her beginning, but as she takes a final look through the scope and sees the couple from afar, armed cops surrounding her, it’s clear her emotions have been her downfall.

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