Writer/director Joe Carnahan (Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane) makes an overreaching but inspired effort at reinventing the dumb- gangsters- with- big- guns motif that Quentin Tarantino created and continues to modify. On a certain level, Smokin' Aces is like a Robert Altman action movie (although Altman never made one) fueled by steroids and caffeine. A couple dozen colorful and violent characters converge on Lake Tahoe's Nomad casino, where Las Vegas illusionist-turned-mob-wannabe Buddy "Aces" Israel (Jeremy Piven) waits to turn state's evidence on Mafia kingpin Primo Sparazza (Joseph Ruskin).
An erroneous rumor quickly spreads through the underworld that Sparazza has put a million-dollar hit out on Aces, and several groups of amateur and professional hit men (and women) take the bait. FBI agents Donald Carruthers (Ray Liotta) and Richard Messner (Ryan Reynolds) are dispatched to help protect Aces from the onslaught, not knowing that an infiltration of killers has already arrived, and will put an X over many an eye before the truth of Primo Sparazza is exposed.
"He said the shit could get hot, could get heavy. I say cool. 'Cause I got two of the hottest, heaviest, bitches alive."
Assassin-broker Loretta Wyman (Davenia McFadden) relates her laconic description of Georgia Sykes (Alicia Keys) and her lesbian girlfriend Sharice Watters (Taraji Henson - Hustle & Flow) to the feisty soul sisters in a diner scene that dips its toe into Tarantino's territory of tangy exposition. Carnahan's razor-sharp postmodern dialogue infects the movie with an entertaining repartee that sizzles. However, he over-plots the movie with a tacked-on ending that ties up veiled loose ends and usurps the film's overriding comedic tone with a dramatic phrasing that muddles rather than polishes.
As amusing as it is to see Carnahan's cartoon assassins clash in an inevitable barrage of bullets, the main glory is in the build-up. Scene-stealer Jason Bateman milks the comedy as quack attorney Rupert "Rip" Reed, a self-deprecating masturbation addict with a fetish for rabbit costumes and panties. Reed hires slimy Las Vegas bail-bondsman Jack Dupree (Ben Affleck) and his partners, ex-vice cop Pete Deeks (Peter Berg) and Deeks' disinterested former partner Hollis, to catch Aces for jumping bail. The three characters are immediately familiar as marginally bad guys we can root for. But Carnahan dodges expectation and throws in the first of many plot surprises. Only one of the three will make it to the end of the story, albeit a few fingers short.
Although surrounded by well-drawn supporting characters, Jeremy Piven's Aces anchors the frenetic action that swirls around him. When he isn't tossing out and ordering up more prostitutes and snorting copious amounts of cocaine, Aces spends what he knows are his last hours practicing with a deck of cards. Jeremy Piven's sleight-of-hand work with cards is impressive. The actor blithely uses his character's dexterous skill to punctuate convoluted conversations with his right- and left-hand men, Sir Ivy (Common) and Hugo (Joel Edgerton).
Piven remained Hollywood's best-kept secret until the HBO television show "Entourage" gave him room to run. The experience seems to have enriched and energized Piven's approach to his role, and the result is something powerful and full of absorbing subtext. He doesn't merely give himself over to the part but invigorates the character with a pulsing rhythm of narcotics-driven emotion. Whether the drugs on Carnahan's set were real or not matters little; Piven regulates every second of his dynamic performance to good effect.
Smokin' Aces is an energetic action movie with more than a few genuine surprises and notable ensemble performances. Joe Carnahan was originally due to direct Mission Impossible: III, but was unceremoniously taken off the project before it went into production. It's a shame, really, because he would certainly have gone to an even darker and more exposed place than J.J. Abrams was willing to take the script. Nonetheless, Joe Carnahan is a force of nature as a writer and a director, with an ability to consistently extract remarkable performances from his actors. Ray Liotta, who did terrific work on Carnahan's Narc, adds palpably, with an expressive performance as an FBI agent on his last big mission.
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