Ace up His Sleeve

Joe Carnahan's overly slick, heavily edited dark comedy works despite itself

New-school genre junk food: Take a Tarantino wannabe with Sundance credentials; add a large, famous-enough cast and a show-biz backdrop; season the violence with references to Sergio Leone and Takeshi Kitano; serve cool; and garnish with a cynicism beyond irony.

Smokin' Aces is writer-director Joe Carnahan's third and most elaborate feature — following his 1999 micro-indie calling card Blood, Guts, Bullets & Octane and well-received 2002 Independent Spirit nominee Narc. It presents as its antihero a glitzy stage magician cum mobster mascot turned mob kingpin and then FBI informer. Buddy "Aces" Israel (Jeremy Piven, who plays the equally egregious "superagent" on Entourage) is, as someone in this overstuffed baloney and ketchup sandwich puts it: "the great white whale of snitches." Everyone wants a piece of this joker's hide, which, given its rumored million-dollar price tag, makes the Lake Tahoe penthouse suite where he's laying low something of a magnet for a gaggle of competing hit squads. To add to the barbarism, the killers have orders to not only ice Israel but also — pace Mel Gibson — cut out his heart.

Let the games begin: A world series of assassins may be the movie's five-word pitch, but burdened with an unnecessarily complicated and aggressively insistent backstory and hence immediately unintelligible, Smokin' Aces is one busy-busy-busy movie. Israel is a compulsive card-shuffler, and so is Carnahan. The screen splits, the action jumps, the FBI surveillance guys in the van outside are buzzed by superfluous static. There's no shortage of parallel action, although Carnahan doesn't cut so much as switch channels in building up to the inevitable supercolossal shootout in Israel's supremely trashed suite.

Posturing is universal with performances in this talky, degenerate Ocean's Eleven, ranging from the hyperactive to the uninflected. The obscure object of desire, his digs strewn with spent hookers, Piven's Israel is distinguished mainly by a frazzled lack of conviction. (He's a hustler without hustle.) Guest star Ben Affleck makes a mildly amusing low-rent bail bondsman; Andy Garcia, fighting through a mush-mouthed drawl as a soulless FBI bureaucrat, is rather less so. And, in a flash frame of cinema vérité, Wayne Newton himself gets a cameo.

A few livelier perfs can be found around the movie's edges. As a junior FBI agent on an increasingly perilous stakeout, Ryan Reynolds stands out by simply keeping focused and pretending to care about his buddy Ray Liotta, the film's unlikely elder statesman (and also a veteran of Narc). Similarly Alicia Keys parlays a fetchingly bored attitude and hoochie-mama hot pants into a credible movie debut; as her partner in crime, Taraji Henson stops the show by stupefying an affably clueless desk clerk with her motor-mouth feminist rap.

Smokin' Aces has no particular narrative; it's basically a study in convergence as a vast assortment of FBI guys, hotel security men, SWAT teams, and killers of all varieties — including a clan of lunatic chainsaw neo-Nazi Mohawk-coiffed punks — fight, claw, and swarm their way up to Israel's suite. The getups are fun, and to add to the party, new characters keep arriving on the scene until the very end; it's nearly impossible to keep them all straight, particularly once they begin shape-shifting and coming back to life. This is not necessarily a bad thing. (Richard Kelly's Southland Tales is a kindred, albeit far richer, example of shaggy-dog phantasmagoria.)

Self-important but not untalented, Smokin' Aces is tonally consistent from beginning to end and, for all of its bloody mayhem, kinetic nihilism, and jive minstrelsy, has a surprisingly light touch. The laugh count is low, Henson's solo and a scene of Israel negotiating with the FBI through his agent notwithstanding; the best running joke is simply the gorgeous, indifferent Tahoe landscape. Carnahan does, however, have an oddball sense of comic timing. What his picture lacks in hilarity it recuperates with a well-developed, albeit mumbling, sense of the absurd.

 
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