Best consumed with pizza and lots of brewskis, Joe Carnahan’s Smokin’ Aces is shamelessly and unapologetically a guy movie. It’s lewd, crude and loaded with shootouts and hot lesbo action. It’s also made up of spare parts, as if Quentin Tarantino’s pulp and Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting cool were being welded by — yikes! — Guy Ritchie, swept away from the arduous duty of directing his Madonna wife and going bug-fuck like he did in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. The result is hardly original, or groundbreaking, or even necessary, but it sure as hell gets the job done.
For that, give props to Carnahan, a writer and director who made a promise with the title of his 1998 debut (Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane) that he keeps on delivering. Narc, his 2002 cop thriller with Ray Liotta and Jason Patric, went deeper into darker places. Narc executive producer Tom Cruise even gave Carnahan a shot at directing Mission: Impossible III, but they bumped heads and Carnahan walked. I’m giving you all this back story because you shouldn’t buy a ticket to Smokin’ Aces without knowing the man behind its black-comic mischief and melancholy. Carnahan has the talent and balls that augur a long career, but he’ll never be respectable. Amen to that.
No wonder actors love this guy. Smokin’ Aces is filled with juicy roles for pros (Liotta, Andy Garcia) as well as an R&B songbird (Alicia Keys) and a rapper (Common) in impressive acting debuts. At the heart of this whirligig is Jeremy Piven as Buddy “Aces” Israel, a scumbag illusionist on the Vegas circuit who is now holed up in a cocaine-and-hooker-filled suite overlooking Nevada’s beautiful Lake Tahoe. Paradise? Not for Buddy. To save his ass, he’s turning state’s evidence against the mob that made him, principally Primo Sparazza (Joseph Ruskin), the boss who has a million-dollar price tag on Buddy’s head.
Piven tears into the role. That avid look is pure Ari Gold, the agent from hell — make that Hollywood — that he plays for the ages on HBO’s Entourage. But Buddy’s killer instinct is literal, blurring the line between crime and showbiz in ways Sinatra and the Rat Pack never dared. Piven nails the laughs, for sure, but he finds something more penetrating in Buddy’s silences when the master magician can’t fool himself. Chasing hookers, snorting coke and pushing around his bodyguard, Hugo (Joel Edgerton), is only for show. “It’s the lie I tell your eyes,” he instructs his henchman Ivy, played by Common as a riveting study of loyalty betrayed. Their brutal face-off reveals Buddy as a cookie full of arsenic. No wonder everyone wants him dead.
And I mean everyone. FBI deputy director Stanley Locke (Garcia) is protecting Buddy with his two best agents, veteran Donald Carruthers (Liotta, putting flesh and blood on a cliché) and hotshot Richard Messner (Ryan Reynolds — yup, Van Wilder himself in a sobering change of pace). But what are these guys to do against an army of killers? Start with mob lawyer Rupert “Rip” Reed (Jason Bateman is so good he’d steal the movie if he had more screen time), who wants to nab the “strung-out, has-been, jerk-off snitch drunk” before the feds. He hires bail bondsman Jack Dupree (Ben Affleck, subtly milking his cameo) and two ex-vice cops, Pistol Pete Deeks (Peter Berg) and Hollis Elmore (Martin Henderson). Watching these clowns screw up gives Carnahan a chance to wail. Also lethally funny in their feeble attempts to whack Buddy are the Tremor brothers (Chris Pine, Kevin Durand and Maury Serling), neo-Nazi skinheads who seem like escapees from a Coen brothers caper. Smarts come in the form of sadist Pasquale Acosta (Nestor Carbonell) and disguise artist Lazlo Soot (Tommy Flanagan).
Villain overload? Maybe. But you won’t hear any complaints from me about Georgia Sykes (Keys) and her lover Sharice Watters (Taraji Henson), who are the “hottest, heaviest bitches alive,” according to their assassin booker. It’s not false advertising. Sharice, the sniper, is the jealous type. She doesn’t like it when Georgia tarts up in black leather and joins the whores lining up to service Buddy. But if Georgia needs to get Buddy in position to take a bullet from the rifle Sharice is manning from a room across the way, then so be it, honey. Georgia is packing heat of her own if things go wrong. But nothing goes wrong with Keys’ performance. “Dah Dee Dah,” yes, she is a sexy thing. No wonder Bob Dylan is thinking about her in “Thunder on the Mountain.” She has a star’s presence, a natural acting talent and the rare gift — it’s beyond physical allure — that draws you to her. As the bullets fly, she and Henson make you believe in the love between these two death angels.
OK, Smokin’ Aces is carrying too many characters and too many plot strands (the ending seems to come from, well, nowhere) to make it to the finish line unbattered. But Carnahan can still fire up action and laughs like nobody’s business. Forget Buddy — he’s the real magician.