Joe Carnahan, please put down the gun (and the flamethrower, and the suitcase full of mysterious torture implements) and back away slowly from the movie camera. Four years ago, you scored a modest hit with Narc, a tightly plotted if ultimately empty buddy-cop-betrayal drama starring Ray Liotta and Jason Patric. Smokin’ Aces, a cameo-crammed action comedy with a strangely maudlin twist ending, is another fable about the perils of ratting out your friends and the joys of riding shotgun with Liotta. But it’s less Narc II than a throwback to the title of your first, ultra-low-budget feature, Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane. Except for the octane part: Smokin’ Aces is awash in ammo and carnage, but it chugs to the finish line with a tank full of sludge.
The film’s first act is faux Tarantino, with a huge cast of quirky hit men and down-on-their-luck lowlifes trading insults as they brief one another on a million-dollar mob hit. (Despite this section’s rapid-fire dialogue and dizzying introduction of new characters—approximately one per minute—the setup takes a good 20 minutes of screen time.) In the second act, these assorted teams of bail bondsmen, neo-Nazi rednecks, and lovable lesbian assassins converge on Buddy “Aces” Israel (Jeremy Piven), a Vegas magician-turned-mobster holed up in a Lake Tahoe casino penthouse. Buddy has made a deal to snitch on his bosses and henchmen in exchange for the protection of two FBI agents (Ray Liotta and Ryan Reynolds). But the elderly don, Primo Sparazza (Joseph Ruskin), wants Buddy taken out with extreme prejudice—he’s specified that whoever gets the job done should bring him the stool pigeon’s heart.
A gruesome Cannonball Run with Piven flesh as the trophy, Smokin’ Aces is a depressingly nihilistic entry in the Tarantino/Guy Ritchie/Ocean’s Eleven caper genre. It jollies us along with gross-out man banter (“Who jizzed on my jacket?”) and lighthearted sadomasochism for three-quarters of its running time, then suddenly lurches into random dramatic interludes that—if the solemn piano music is any cue—we’re actually supposed to care about. Most of these involve the slide into coke-addled dementia of Piven’s Buddy. But given the utter absence of development or context for this character—we don’t even see him do any real magic tricks!—it’s impossible to decide whether to root for the victim or his equally uncompelling assassins.
The weirdly magnetic Piven is the only reason I still watch HBO’s Entourage (which I’ve inveighed against here and here). He’s a mercurial actor, one of the few I could imagine effecting the transition from magician to gang lord. (Isn’t it always the way? One minute they’re pulling bunnies from hats, the next they’re collecting protection money.) But Piven is powerless to combat the deep stupidity of this role, and his performance ranges from adequate (in the comic scenes) to excruciating (in the “tragic” ones). At the movie’s puzzling dramatic nadir, Buddy stares blearily into the bathroom mirror, wearing a single bright-blue contact lens, as a tear rolls down his cheek. I wish my insurance covered Lasik surgery too, but you don’t see me crying about it.
I tried to experience Smokin’ Aces as a wild amoral thrill ride, but it feels more like a first-person shooter video game. Some of the sitting ducks include Ben Affleck as a bail bondsman with a walrus mustache and teeth like piano keys; Andy Garcia as an FBI boss with an unprecedented Southern Gothic accent; and Alicia Keys and Taraji P. Henson as lady assassins who also happen to be lovers. Henson, who played the pregnant prostitute in Hustle & Flow, is the movie’s strongest dramatic presence, and Jason Bateman, as a degenerate, self-loathing lawyer, provides the funniest two-and-a-half minutes (is there anything Jason Bateman doesn’t make funnier?). But cherry-picking performances feels like a sucker’s game in Smokin’ Aces, an undifferentiated heap of genre clichés that, less than 48 hours after seeing it, is already receding in my memory.
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