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Smokin' Aces

The title Smokin' Aces refers to the fact that the mob has put out a hit on a man named Buddy 'Aces' Israel (Jeremy Piven). The price tag--a cool million--is so big that it immediately attracts a lot of interest, which is just what the mob wants. So in a very short time, a crowd of players converge on the Vegas hotel where Israel is holed up. The reason for the hit is that Israel, a popular entertainer who liked to fraternize with the mob, has grown a little too full of himself. He's tried his hand at pulling his own jobs and that got his old mobster friends seriously annoyed. Enter the FBI. They're trying to convince Israel that the only way out is to turn state's evidence and testify against the mob. So now the FBI, bail bondsmen, assorted hit men and women, and a few loonies are heading for a showdown in Vegas.

Smokin' Aces doesn't really have a complicated plot yet it takes Carnahan almost a half hour to lay out all the details and introduce his large cast. Then it takes him another half hour at the end of the film to explain all the ridiculous plot twists. In between there's a lot of gunfire and a massive reduction in the cast size but not much else. There's a lot of male testosterone on display and a token ass-kicking babe (singer Alicia Keys) for eye candy. There's no real story or character development, just big noisy shootouts.

Carnahan displayed a gritty edge in earlier film Narc . In that film he also pushed credibility but at least he held you with interesting characters that you cared about. In Smokin' Aces , you start to feel like you're in some video game and you wish you had the controls so you could just blow everything and everyone to smithereens because the film gets so annoying. No one is likable and most of the characters are stupid. The film plays out like Ocean's Eleven directed by a wannabe Tarantino or Guy Ritchie.

Alicia Keys in Smokin' Aces

Smokin' Aces also displays a nasty sense of violence. It opens with an early torture scene depicting a naked bloodied man hanging upside down while a psycho hitman employs torches, blades and surgical instruments to inflict pain. Granted, it's a brief scene but it displays a cruelty that's gratuitous. Tarantino depicted disturbing torture in Reservoir Dogs but it fit into the film and defined the character committing the violence. It wasn't added solely to shock. But Carnahan tosses that scene out for a sick chuckle. He doesn't want us to take the violence seriously and the scene carries no emotional punch (as the violence in Pan's Labyrinth does). Carnahan stages the action as entertainment. He wants us to enjoy it and maybe even find it funny. But he doesn't have the right touch. He has neither the perverse skill of a Takashi Miike ( Ichi the Killer, The Dead or Alive Trilogy ) nor the sense of fun of Guy Ritchie ( Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch ). So Carnahan lurches awkwardly from gritty violence to over the top gags to what he conceives as an emotionally charged ending. Carnahan's first feature was Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane and that pretty much sums up his latest film.

The cast struggles with the lame script. Jason Bateman gets the most laughs with his self-deprecating wimp. Ray Liotta and Ryan Reynolds try desperately but unsuccessfully to add some emotional depth to their FBI agents. Cast in a tiny tole is Peter Berg, an actor who directed Jeremy Piven in a truly dark and disturbed little gem called Very Bad Things. But unfortunately for both the actors and the audience, nobody has the opportunity to shine.

Smokin' Aces (rated R for violence, language, drug use and nudity) misses its mark and goes down in a hail of messy gunfire. But with the touchy-feely romance Catch and Release and the goofy comedy Epic Movie as its only competition, Smokin' Aces is likely to draw a large percent of the male audience this weekend. But I recommend that that audience stay home and play their video games because theres better storytelling there than in Carnahan's movie. One final note. As with The Hitcher, the best thing about Smokin' Aces is the trailer attached for Hot Fuzz , the new film from the makers of the zombie classic Shaun of the Dead.

Companion viewing: Reservoir Dogs , Snatch, Ichi the Killer, Very Bad Things