February 1, 2007

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Smokin’ Aces (R)
Jeremy Piven gives us a coke-addled, half-witted, red-eyed, disgusted-pity-earning version of mover and shaker Ari Gold in Smokin’ Aces, a violent gangster fantasy that itself moves (jerkily, like it has the dry heaves) and shakes (as though a heroin addict had his hand on the camera).

I can picture, somewhere out there, some group of wannabe-bad-asses, dead-end-job-holding underachievers leaving slicking back their hair and zipping up the track suits to strap on a paint ball gun and play Smokin’ Aces in a vacant lot. There’s a late-adolescent fever-dream quality to this movie. It seems like the sort of thing a boy who’s seen too much Tarantino and one-to-many viewings of Scarface would write for his community college film class at the age of 19. Maybe “write” is too strong a word. Maybe “lightly outline” is a better way to describe it, that way exact lines and actions, exact ricochets of a bullet and sudden flips of sexuality could be embellished just a bit differently each time he talked about it.

The story, in so much as there is one, is hung on the shaky frame of an F.B.I. stake out of a mobster named Primo Sparazza (Joseph Ruskin). Agents Carruthers (Ray Liotta) and Messner (Ryan Reynolds, who — I kid you not — might actually have the most serious and nose-to-the-grindstone approach to his character of anyone in the movie) hear Sparazza say he wants sleazy casino magician Buddy “Aces” Israel (Jeremy Piven), specifically he wants Israel’s heart. The agents decide they also want Israel, hoping to use his impending vivisection as a way to get him to rat on Sparazza. Some 100 minutes later we get the answer to all the questions raised in this opening scene in the form of incredibly long and twisted exposition (with flashbacks) delivered by Locke (Andy Garcia), the two F.B.I. agents’ boss.

In between, we have the It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World like race of assorted assassins and bounty hunters to get Israel themselves. Their parts are self-consciously weird and loud and over-caffienated but some of the performances briefly amuse in this parade of gun-touting stars (Ben Affleck, Jason Bateman, Common, Tommy Flanagan, Alicia Keyes and Taraji P. Henson being among the most interesting). The best at delivering interesting between-violence banter are Georgia Sykes (Keyes) and Sharice Watters (Henson), a team of Foxy Brown-ish lesbian sharp-shooters wherein Watters is more infatuated with Sykes than Sykes is with her.

Smokin’ Aces feels like it was made as hard-rock-video as possible and then run through the shaky-cam/quick-cut/frame-distortion/random-volume-enhancer explodo-machine at least two more times. Why fire a gun 10 times when 100 times blows it up all that much more? Why have a simple gunfire fight when parts of the scenery can explode? Why have two hookers when you can have 10?

Because too much icing and you bury the cake, that’s why. Oh well, Jeremy Piven does quality for 13-some weeks every nine months or so. Who can blame him for living out a teenager’s dream during his off time? C-

Rated R strong bloody violence, pervasive language, some nudity and drug use. Written and directed by Joe Carnahan, Smokin’ Aces is an hour and 48 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Universal Pictures.