SMOKIN' ACES (Joe Carnahan, 2007)
Through the years the FBI has decimated the Mafia, but there's still a big fish in Primo Sparazza (Joseph Ruskin) waiting to be caught. When Vegas magician turned gangster wannabe Buddy "Aces" Israel (Jeremy Piven) gets in a bind with the mob, the feds look to him as a prime candidate to flip and nail the old boss. Sparazza catches wind of Buddy's possible betrayal and puts out a million dollar contract on him. He not only wants the smarmy entertainer dead; he also wants his heart.
The price tag brings killers out of the woodworks in SMOKIN' ACES. Buddy is in protective custody on the top floor of a Lake Tahoe casino, but the officers watching over him have no idea what's coming their way. Contract killers Georgia Sykes (Alicia Keys) and Sharice Watters (Taraji P. Henson) plan a honey trap for the hooker-loving Buddy. Mercenary Pasquale Acosta (Nestor Carbonell) will pass himself off as FBI. The Tremors, a trio of neo-Nazi thugs, intend to use brute force. Master of disguises Lazlo Soot (Tommy Flanagan) plots to get close to Buddy by posing as one of his personal bodyguards. Ex-cops turned bail bondsmen Jack Dupree (Ben Affleck), "Pistol" Pete Deeks (Peter Berg), and Hollis Elmore (Martin Henderson) will go in dressed as hotel security. FBI agents Richard Messner (Ryan Reynolds) and Donald Carruthers (Ray Liotta) are to keep Buddy safe from this full-blown, multi-pronged assault.
Writer-director Joe Carnahan trades the gritty realism of his previous film NARC for an over-the-top bullet opera riddled with dark comedy. The rat-a-tat-tat dialogue and 70s trappings of SMOKIN' ACES is pure Tarantino, although like the countless imitators, it isn't as clever as its inspiration. For all of the craziness and mayhem, it's not as unhinged as CRANK or RUNNING SCARED, films that didn't work but had some breathtaking, totally insane sequences.
SMOKIN' ACES comes closest to approaching that freewheeling lunacy in two funny scenes with Chris Pine's Darwin Tremor. His conversation with one of his dead victims, in which the corpse serves as sort of his ventriloquist's dummy, is twisted but imaginative and hilarious. The awkward nature of Lester's run-in with someone he left for dead gets milked for every last drop of humor before wrapping in the only way it could.
With a who's who cast populating the interlocking stories, SMOKIN' ACES requires an extensive amount of set-up. Three-quarters of the film, or what seems like it, involves explaining who everyone is and what they will be doing. While Carnahan does a good job of laying out the players and their tactics so that there's no confusion, the film feels top heavy with exposition. He handles the twists less adroitly, leading to a conclusion that's neither surprising nor earned.
The casual nihilism of SMOKIN' ACES gives it the detached hipness inherent in this type of film, so it stumbles badly when grasping for a moral at the end. It's impossible for a last minute pang of conscience to resonate when no loyalty to or fondness for any of the characters has been developed. SMOKIN' ACES is like a multi-player shoot 'em up video game in which the thrill comes from being bad. To finish with a flash of self-righteous humanity feels like a compromise out of step with the film's cocky strut.