For a good long while, the frenetically nihilistic Smokin’ Aces is a sweet sharp shot — a drink with the fizz of Coke and the bite of whiskey. Writer-director Joe Carnahan, who’d previously gone deeper and darker in Narc, reverts here to the Tarantino-knockoff mode of his debut, Blood, Guts, Bullets & Octane. But there are Tarantino knockoffs and then there are Tarantino knockoffs, and much of Smokin’ Aces is combustible retardo fun.
The MacGuffin of the piece is Jeremy Piven, in full jaded-sleazo splendor, as mob-connected magician Buddy “Aces” Israel. Buddy is ass-deep into the Mafia, to the point of arranging his own robberies and hits to become one of the goodfellas. The FBI has offered Buddy immunity in exchange for diming on what’s left of the dessicated Cosa Nostra, which has put a million-dollar price on his head. The bounty brings out every form of sharpshooter and lowlife in search of an easy payday.
An embarrassment of casting riches, from Ray Liotta and Andy Garcia as feds (Ryan Reynolds, eventually the center of the film, doesn’t disgrace himself as Liotta’s partner) to Jason Bateman as a self-hating drunken lawyer to Alicia Keys as a slinky assassin of indeterminate sexuality, Smokin’ Aces wants to play in the same ballpark as the similarly star-studded and bullet-riddled True Romance. (The closest this film has to a Clarence and Alabama is Alicia Keys and her partner in crime, played by Taraji P. Henson.) The movie’s profligacy of acting firepower is such that it brings on Ben Affleck and (in a rare acting turn these days) Peter Berg in what amount to cameos, with dutiful bits handed out to the likes of Wayne Newton and a barely-recognizable Matthew Fox. Smokin’ Aces has the jostling, caffeinated feel of a wolf-hour party occasionally presided over by the debauched Buddy (who never leaves his swank Vegas hotel room).
As long as it sticks to its cartoonish emphasis — which includes a trio of rabid rednecks armed with chainsaws and shotguns, a master of disguise, and the world’s stupidest Russian gofer, who takes the shamefaced blame for a protein deposit left on Buddy’s $12,000 jacket — Smokin’ Aces is a hallucinogenic jolt of disreputable glee. Somewhere near the close, though, it begins to peter out, first by asking us to care about the death of one man among multitudes of corpses, then by supplying a contrived, convoluted dissection of what’s really going on. One can feel the air leaking out of the party: the eleventh-hour plot-flip has little connection to why we’ve been enjoying the film, which is its very dumb-ass herky-jerkiness.
Fittingly, it all ends on an image of life slowly ebbing away. Then we’re thrown into retro-colorful end credits revisiting some of the movie’s more iconic moments, which seem meant to give the audience just about enough energy to get up and go to their cars. This could’ve been a classic belch of grindhouse-throwback foolishness if not for Carnahan’s apparent need to take his story seriously after all (the ludicrousness of the plot twist is handled with gray-toned gravity). But three-quarters of a nutbrain no-brainer is better than nothing.