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 watching a Robert Altman action movie fueled by steroids and caffeine.
A couple of 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, sequestered in a heavily guarded penthouse suite, 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 $1,000,000 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, and arrive not knowing that an infiltration of killers has already arrived that will put an X over many an eye before the truth of Primo Sparazza is exposed.
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.
For as amusing as it is to see Carnahan’s cartoon assassins clash in an inevitable barrage of bullets that penetrate windows and Kevlar alike, the main glory is in the build-up. Scene-stealer Jason Bateman milks the comedy as quack attorney Rupert “Rip” Reed, an overtly 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, an ex-vice cop Pete Deeks (Peter Berg) and Deeks’ disinterested former partner Hollis, to catch Aces for bail jumping. The three characters are immediately familiar as marginally bad guys that we can root for. But Carnahan dodges expectation and throws in the first plot surprise of many. Only one of the trio will make it to the end of the story, albeit a few fingers short of the number that he started out with.
Although surrounded by a seemingly countless number of well drawn supporting characters Jeremy Piven’s Aces anchors the frenetic action swirling around him. Aces spends what he knows are his last hours habitually practicing with a deck of cards when he isn’t tossing out and ordering up more prostitutes and snorting copious amounts of cocaine.
Piven’s sleight-of-hand work with cards is impressive and 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). He doesn’t merely give himself over to the part, but he invigorates the character with a pulsing rhythm of narcotic-driven emotion that ebbs and flows creating pools of tangible sensation. Whether the drugs on Carnahan’s set were real or not matters little because 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, coupled with notable ensemble performances. Carnahan was originally due to direct Mission Impossible: III but was unceremoniously taken off of the project before it went into production. It’s a shame really because he would certainly have taken the franchise to an even darker and more exposed place than J.J. Abrams was willing to go with the script.
Nonetheless, Carnahan is a force of nature as a writer and director, and his ability to extract remarkable performances from his actors is consistently evident. Ray Liotta, who did terrific work on Carnahan’s Narc, adds palpably with an expressive performance as a FBI agent on his last big mission. MTW