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Smokin' Aces

With all the depth of a G.I. Joe cartoon, Joe Carnahan's Smokin' Aces roars across the screen. The thing that makes it watchable, however, is the violence of what the kids would do with their G.I. Joe action figures on their own time. Loads of high concept hitmen circle around a Lake Tahoe hotel to score the bounty on Buddy "Aces" Israel (Jeremy Piven), and in the lunacy that follows, come to think of it, it's amazing that none of these guys got a firecracker up their wazoo. That would have been nice for my G.I. Joe metaphor.

Just about everything else happens, though. Writer/director Joe Carnahan does his best imitation of Quentin Tarantino and piles operatic violence on top of a cast of characters right out of Charles Dickens - if Dickens had done meth.

For the most part, it's fast, fun and loud, with some heavily telegraphed plot twists that cover still more plot twists. Smokin' Aces also has one exposition heavy introduction that lasts more than twenty minutes and still seems forgivable, because it's just so obviously goofy. What it doesn't have is a center.

Hanging on a decent idea, the movie would have us buy into Piven as a top Vegas magician that got a taste of mob life and liked it a little too much. By the time we meet him, however, it's all come crashing down as his agent scrambles to make a deal with the FBI. A brief montage gives us the glory days, and Piven could have totally had us if given a chance to stretch his creepy charisma.

Instead, he's coked up, arrogant and oddly weepy in isolation. Piven can play that, too, but Carnahan hasn't given us a chance to like Buddy Israel in spite of ourselves. With a bunch of grotesques descending upon him in a race against FBI agents Carruthers (Ray Liotta) and Messner (Ryan Reynolds), we just don't care if Israel lives or dies. Heck, we barely care if the FBI guys live or die, and that's only because Liotta and Reynolds have good banter.

But that's all the script really has - banter. The dialogue snaps and pops as the scenario gets more loony, bending stereotypes and quite possibly genres. A trio of hitmen called "The Tremors" are right out of the Mad Max films, quite at odds with the seedy bail bondsman played by a low-key Ben Affleck. Throw in Alicia Keys as a lesbian hitwoman and, really, it just seems like Carnahan has been reading too many comic books. When I'm saying that, you know it's a little too wild. If only Destro had made an appearance.

The most effective cameo - and almost everybody is barely more than a cameo in this - comes from Jason Bateman as a sleazy lawyer. His delivery alone would make it funny, but Carnahan couldn't leave that alone. Implying perversions with set dressing and a bizarre costume piece on the dresser, Carnahan calls attention to each and every detail instead of letting it just get discovered. Heaven forbid the audience accidentally miss a joke.

Yet it is choreographed so perfectly. It is fun watching various actors pop up and enjoy themselves for a few minutes. And face it, even if Alicia Keys doesn't exactly prove she can act with this film, every line she breathes works because - well, because she just breathes so well.

Long bumping up against becoming a leading man, Reynolds also holds the screen better than he has in anything. This isn't the role that will seal the deal for him, but at least he earns another couple of chances.

If you have any hope of enjoying this, you have to turn off your brain. In January, we get enough of that already, and Carnahan showed so much more promise with Narc a few years ago. Then, too, things weren't quite as clever as he thought, but at least he did have one other color in his palette - subtlety.


Derek McCaw

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