“Smokin’ Aces” blows some cool smoke rings until it makes the very un-cool mistake of overstaying its welcome. Style and attitude, pegged to a baroque plot concerning an FBI plan to snare a key mob witness that attracts a virtual convention of world-class killers, burns up a lot of screen time but amounts to little more than some sensational scenes. However, as exemplified by strong U.K. returns last week bucking nay-saying critics, hungry young auds looking for fresh goods in January will flock to the mayhem, ensuring aces first-week B.O.
Much anticipated by fans of writer-director Joe Carnahan’s Sundance hits “Narc” and “Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane,” pic is far more under the sway of Quentin Tarantino’s color-saturated bang-bang cinema than the helmer’s previous work. Tarantino’s shadow can be a dangerous thing: A better influence on Carnahan might have been author Elmore Leonard and his flair for weaving terrific story strands with vividly wrought characters.
Title cards misleadingly suggest pic is a true-life tale of the FBI’s efforts to bring down the Mafia by getting to Vegas entertainer Buddy “Aces” Israel (Jeremy Piven) before the mob gets him first. In fact, though grounded superficially in the reality of organized crime’s ties to Nevada showbiz, “Smokin’ Aces” is pure gun-toting fantasy, daring auds to keep up with its high-speed narrative flow.
Placing surveillance on Mafia boss Primo Sparazza (Joseph Ruskin), fed agents Carruthers (Ray Liotta, “Narc”) and Messner (Ryan Reynolds) listen in on his plans to get rid of Buddy and remove his heart.
Meaning of this detail isn’t addressed until a completely impenetrable wrap-up. But Buddy’s importance — he’s at war with Sparazza for control of the Nevada mob — is explained in a slickly assembled daisy chain of dialogues among the agents and their FBI topper Stanley Locke (Andy Garcia); bail bondsmen Jack Dupree (Ben Affleck), “Pistol” Pete Deeks (Peter Berg) and Hollis Elmore (Martin Henderson); and hired killers Georgia Sykes (Alicia Keys) and lover Loretta Wyman (Davenia McFadden), who are aiming to bring Buddy down before the feds nab him.
This presumes, of course, that a second-rate Frank Sinatra could actually vie for a high Mafia position, but pic skips past this question and observes Buddy in his Lake Tahoe casino penthouse suite — a diorama of coke-saturated, post-coital sleaze and decrepitude that says more about Buddy than any smart-ass dialogue could hope to.While Buddy spins his wheels, Carruthers and Messner’s team moves in — as do Dupree’s crew, Georgia and Loretta, a crazed neo-Nazi trio called the Tremors, a legendary torturer/killer named Acosta (Nestor Carbonell) and master of disguise Lazlo Soot (Tommy Flanagan).
Watching all these moving parts approach their target can be giddy fun, especially since Carnahan knows where to place his camera and, with editor Robert Frazen, when to cut for maximum effect. For sheer visceral buzz from opening to mid-section, pic delivers a lot of kick.
But the often-stunning set pieces (including a dazzling shootout involving at least three different parties) lead to a dead end before Buddy is ultimately removed from the scene. His dispatch is for different reasons than Reynolds’ flummoxed Carruthers assumes, and the longer Garcia’s Locke takes to explain, the deeper nonsense the film drifts into, as a bullet ballet turns into a jumble of whatsit devices that mean very little. Cinematographer Mauro Fiore pushes the widescreen image to extremes of color and texture, using the Tahoe sun and the casino’s indoor artificiality to overwhelming effect. Carnahan’s direction particularly well serves the effectively hyper Piven, Liotta, Affleck, Carbonell and Keys, who brims with sexy confidence. Tahoe provides a refreshing change of location from the now-common Vegas backdrop, and the soundtrack gathers up a bric-a-brac of music sources, including a relatively obscure Ennio Morricone cue from “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.”