What do you get when you cross the uninterrupted violence of The Departed with the witty, Vegas-centric dialogue of Ocean's 11? You would probably get a much better version of Joe Carnahan's new film, Smokin' Aces.
Despite the film's unending list of characters and disjointed style, the plot is relatively straightforward. Buddy "Aces" Israel (Jeremy Piven) is a washed up, coked-out Vegas lounge performer about to snitch out his old mob buddies to the FBI. The mob finds out, and puts a $1 million price on Israel's head. To escape his certain death, Israel is held up in the penthouse of a Lake Tahoe hotel being guarded by two FBI agents, played by Ray Liotta and Ryan Reynolds. The handsome reward brings out every major hitman (and woman) on the strip who all race against time to collect the prize. Bullets, blood, drugs and hookers follow.
Smokin' Aces has many of the hallmarks of the witty action comedies that have become so popular in the post-Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels world. Zany characters--check. Several narrative threads tying up at the end--check. While this formula has worked before (Snatch, Lucky Number Slevin), Carnahan botches it. Unlike its predecessors, which begin goofy and violent and end the same, Smokin' Aces begins as a lighthearted, bullet-strewn romp should, but once the actual violence begins, the tone shifts to very dark, slow and unfunny.
One-dimensional, throw-away characters actually have to hold the screen, round out a storyline and seem believable. Reynolds, used to playing a witty frat boy/vampire killer has to spin 180 degrees two-thirds of the way through, portraying a disillusioned FBI agent after realizing he's been duped. Alicia Keys' character, resembling something out of an early '70s blacksploitation film for the first hour and a half, becomes a soft, sweet, injured damsel in distress. While it's clear that Carnahan is attempting to twist the stereotypes by adding some depth, it's an exercise in futility given the film's outlandish premise. In the end, all we're left with are stereotypes.
Smokin' Aces is not without redeeming qualities. Piven steals the movie as the egomaniacal Israel. Even passed out in a pile of hookers, drugs and vomit, he's by far the film's most watchable character. Jason Bateman is memorable in his short-lived role as a cross-dressing informant. While the characters are generally walking action movie tropes, they are genuinely funny at times and the dialogue is adequately sharp. If only Carnahan had allowed the film to maintain its comic edge rather than divebombing into a depressing, confusing labyrinth of double-crosses and cop drama cliches.
In the end Smokin' Aces feels like a gasping death-rattle from a chronically abused genre. For every Pulp Fiction Hollywood produces, several pale impersonations appear that count on the unending optimism of Tarantino fans to push them through the first two weeks. Sadly, fans of slick crime thrillers will only leave disappointed, and some will write really nasty reviews.