It’s seems awfully late in the game for anybody to be trying to out-Tarantino Tarantino, but that’s pretty much what Joe Carnahan attempts in “Smokin’ Ace,” a visually flashy, strenuously hip but totally vacuous crime comedy that’s all sass and no substance.
The plot, which tries to meld wiseguy shoot-’em-up with a “Usual Suspects”-style concluding twist, centers on a Las Vegas style entertainer and Mafia made man Buddy “Aces” Israel (Jeremy Piven) who’s supposedly in trouble for challenging big boss Primo Sparazza (Joseph Ruskin) for leadership and has turned squealer. When an FBI surveillance team (Ray Liotta and Ryan Reynolds) overhear Sparazza’s henchmen talking about hiring hit-men to off Buddy and literally rip out his heart, they and the deputy director (Andy Garcia) who’s been negotiating for Israel’s testimony lurch into defensive mode.
But the game’s already afoot, and while Buddy—apparently a magician-cum-singer of sorts, though we never see him perform (a good thing, since Piven is one of the last people one might think of as a charismatic Sinatra type)—goes gonzo with drugs and broads in a Lake Tahoe penthouse, a bevy of hired killers compete to take him out. There’s a trio of bounty hunters (Ben Affleck, Peter Berg and Martin Henderson) apparently hired by a shyster lawyer (Justin Bateman) whose wider involvement in the business remains unclear—at least to this viewer. There’s a lesbian duo of hard-boiled black chicks (Alicia Keys and Davenia McFadden), and three spaced-out skin-heads who call themselves The Tremors, led by a wackily vicious brother named Darwin (Chris Pine). Filling out the assemblage of would-be killers are Soot (Tommy Flanagan), a supposed man of a thousand faces like Lon Chaney, and Acosta (Nestor Carbonell), a gruesome guy who likes to make his victims suffer before they die. All of them invade the hotel where Israel’s holed up, and with Buddy’s bodyguards, the security staff and the feds there too, all hell breaks loose.
Even this small army of performers doesn’t exhaust things. Among other actors who amble in for brief stopovers are Alex Rocco as one of Sparazza’s men (seen mostly from a distance, but the voice is a dead giveaway), Curtis Armstrong as Buddy’s agent, and Matthew Fox (from “Lost”) as a hotel security guard, nearly unrecognizable in a bushy moustache but once again, the voice is unmistakable. Wayne Newton even puts in a cameo. And it’s hard to know what to make of the camera’s cruel zoom-ins on the acne-ridden hotel employee (Scott Halberstadt) or the scene with a weirdly friendly old recluse (Marianne Muellerleile) and her frantically over-active grandson (Zach Cumer).
What results from this? Nothing much that would appeal to anybody’s brain. “Smokin’ Aces” quickly devolves into a stultifying chain of gun fights and ineffectually flip dialogue, directed by somebody who seems to have OD’d on early John Woo movies but can’t come close to matching them. You have to be impressed by the huge cast of well-known actors who appear in it, attracted no doubt by characters that give them the chance to strike macho poses (though little else) and a script that allows them to spit out dialogue that probably looks catchy on the page. But nobody comes off well. They all look like they’re playing dress-up, spouting dialogue that might have seemed inviting but comes through tinny and juvenile when actually spoken. (And occasionally they’re really embarrassed, as when Bateman suddenly appears in ladies’ lingerie, for no reason besides an easy laugh.) And everything winds up with an elaborate twist, explained in a drearily overextended bit by Garcia, that’s tied—as anyone with an IQ above that of an amoeba will be able to foresee from the intrusive flashbacks that constantly interrupt the action—with a long-ago mob hit in which Sparazza supposedly killed an undercover agent. But that’s only part of the final surprise, which turns out to be unbelievably silly.
The staging of this mess has the brazen hyperactivity that’s become de rigueur in such stuff. Cinematographer Mauro Fiore moves his camera about flamboyantly and shoots in wildly oversaturated colors, while editor Robert Frazen cuts it all together for maximum visceral impact. And of course insistently throbbing music by Clint Mansell pounds out over those Digital Dolby speakers.
But all the technical razzmatazz gives birth to a cinematic mouse. There’s simply nothing worthwhile in “Smokin’ Aces.” What Carnagehan—sorry, Carnahan—has wrought is a foul, speciously cool exercise in gross, pointless mayhem, an unholy wedding of “Pulp Fiction” and “The Usual Suspects” that invites guests to throw brickbats rather than rice at the screen. It’s this year’s “Domino.”