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 then FBI informer. Buddy “Aces” Israel (Jeremy Piven, who plays the equally egregious “super-agent” 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 not just to ice Israel, but — pace Mel Gibson — also to 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 back story (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 super-colossal shootout in Israel's supremely trashed suite.
Posturing is universal in this talky, degenerate Ocean's Eleven, with performances 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 verite, Wayne Newton gets a cameo.
A few livelier perfs may be found around the movie's edges. As a junior FBI agent on an increasingly perilous stakeout, Ryan Reynolds stands out just by keeping focused and pretending to care about his buddy Ray Liotta, the film's unlikely elder statesman (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 essentially 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 get-ups are fun, and to add to the party, new characters keep arriving on the scene up until the very end — it's nearly impossible to keep them all straight, particularly once they start 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 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), and 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 recovers with a well-developed, albeit mumbling, sense of the absurd.