Sunday, October 5, 2008


Anybody that craves the sight of scantily-clad babes, blood splashed everywhere and bodies shot to shreds will drool over director Joe Carnahan's violent new serio-comic mobster melodrama "Smokin' Aces" (**1/2 out of ****), an erratically uneven but entertaining R-rated crime thriller that takes an abrupt left-turn from black comedy in the third act to self-conscious tragedy. Clearly, when Carnahan wrote this overwrought, contemporary shoot ' em up, he must have been inspired by Sergio Leone's "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly," Tony Scott's "True Romance," Quentin Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs," and Guy Ritchie's "Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels." Carnahan's gritty often hilariously vulgar dialogue contains some of the most quotable lines since "Pulp Fiction," with F-bombs scattered like fragmentation grenades throughout the action. Aside from smarmy comic Ryan Reynolds and Ben Affleck in a minor role, Carnahan's otherwise first-rate cast includes Jeremy Piven, Ray Liotta, Andy Garcia, young Zack Cumer, and newcomer vocalist Alicia Keys. The casting of Ryan Reynolds as a revengeful FBI agent is a major flaw and he nearly undermines everything in the third act with his lackluster performance. Reynolds is built for comic, not serious straightforward roles, and he never looks believable as a Fed. Neither, in a significantly smaller role, does "Pearl Harbor" heartthrob Ben Affleck score as a lowlife scumbag bail bondsman.

FBI agents Donald Carruthers (Ray Liotta of "Goodfellas") and Richard Messner (Ryan Reynolds of "Van Wilder") are on a stakeout keeping close tabs on the last of the big-time mafia bosses, elderly Primo Sparazza (Joseph Ruskin of "Prizzi's Honor"), as he lies ailing in bed in his luxurious mansion. Meanwhile, the Bureau is negotiating a once-in-a-lifetime deal with Las Vegas magician-turned-mobster Buddy 'Aces' Israel (Jeremy Piven of "P.C.U.") who knows enough about Primo's operation to destroy it. Initially, the FBI believes that the wiseguys in Primo's organization want to put a million dollar contract out on Buddy to shut him up permanently. At the same time, a variety of hard-hitting executioners step up to claim that million-dollar payday. Among them are two sexy African-American ladies Georgia Sykes (R&B vocalist Alicia Keys in her film debut) and Sharice Watters (Taraji Henson of "Hustle & Flow"), the three insane neo-Nazi redneck Tremor brothers: Darwin (Chris Pine), Jeeves (Kevin Durand) and Lester (Maury Sterling), a masochistic Latin hit-man masquerading as an FBI agent, Pasqual Acosta (Nestor Carbonell), and a deadly hit-man with a knack for disguises, Lazlo Soot (Tommy Flanagan of "Gladiator"). Everybody converges on the penthouse in a casino in Lake Tahoe, Nevada, where Buddy has holed up with his bodyguards waiting on word from FBI Deputy Director Stanley Locke (Andy Garcia of "Ocean's Eleven") about his deal with them to inform on his mentor Sparazza who had embraced him like a son. Not surprisingly, all hell breaks loose when these gunsels collide with each other in several hyperactively staged shoot-outs that rival the intensity but not the duration of those in Ridley Scott's "Black Hawk Down." Writer & director Joe Carnahan, known best for his first two American-made movies "Blood, Guts, Bullets, and Octane" (1998) and "Narc" (2002), knows his way around crime movies. The first half-hour of "Smokin' Aces" is brilliantly done with an abundance of exposition conveyed in minimal time that introduces all the characters and lays out the background of the conflict. Wisely, Carnahan juggles the exposition, spreading it among different characters so none of it becomes monotonous. His spontaneous, off-the-wall, earthy dialogue has an unmistakable underworld patois, while most of his casts— minus Reynolds and Affleck—have no trouble making this slangy stuff sound convincing in a repellent way. Furthermore, Carnahan has conjured up the most bizarre selection of eight balls since Guy Ritchie's "Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels" and "Snatch." None of the characters in "Smokin' Aces" lack unique qualities. The best example is Warren (Zack Cumer), a whacked out, motor-mouth teenager with ADD who forgets to take his Ritalin and practices his karate moves while behaving like an urban gangsta with a bad attitude. Cumer steals every scene that he is in for the brief period that he appears in the film. Unfortunately, Carnahan goes way overboard with this colorful gallery of freakazoids. Too many unsympathetic characters clutter up the action, and Carnahan shoehorns far too much plot into a nimble 108 minute movie. Worse, anybody that pays attention to these convoluted shenanigans, including a backstory about an FBI effort to infiltrate the mob, will guess the major revelation before Carnahan unveils it in the third act.

"Smokin' Aces" emerges as an amoral, cartoon-like exercise in nihilism that the squeamish should shun but that fans of the crime capers will enjoy despite its narrative shortcomings.

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