Smoke 'Em If You've Got 'Em

In 2002, a writer director named Joe Carnahan made an exemplary, but little-seen cop thriller called Narc, a shadowy noir exercise in reinvention that marked him down as one to watch. Unfortunately in Smokin’ Aces, much of that gritty potential goes to waste in what amounts to an over-produced, under-written re-thread of sub-Guy Ritchie crime comedy capers, a disappointingly familiar and excessively violent ensemble bloodbath built around the theme of exhaustion.

It says something about the film when the wafer-thin plot can be dispatched in two short sentences while listing the cast members that act it out might take up the remainder of the available space. Basically, a dying mafia boss has taken out a $1 million contract on the life of his former protégé, a Las Vegas magician turned mobster who has entered the FBI Witness protection programme. While the G-Men try and protect their witness, a small army of professional assassins descend on his lakeside hide-out in a race to be the first to kill the stool pigeon and claim the bounty.

Entourage star Jeremy Piven plays the sleazy magician, Buddy “Aces” Israel, trailed by FBI director Locke (Andy Garcia), and his agents, Messner (Ryan Reynolds) and Carruthers (Ray Liotta). The early part of the film is staged to introduce the seven or eight different squads of hit-men chasing the prize, a parade of characters that requires more concentration from the audience than the film merits. Chief among them are former cop Jack Dupree (Ben Affleck) and his cronies Elmore (Martin Henderson) and Deeks (Peter Berg), accompanied unawares by a gang of chainsaw-wielding neo-Nazi punks, a pair of urban assassins (singer Alisha Keyes among them) and so on, right up to the point where the viewer loses all track of who is chasing who and why.

Although the film is presented as an ultra-violent cartoon (It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World as re-imagined by Tarantino) the only sustained comedy comes from a couple of short scenes with Arrested Development’s Jason Bateman as a drunken, cross-dressing go-between. It is shortly after this momentary relief that the film begins to fall apart completely, with Carnahan piling on the high-decibel gun-battles as whatever passed as a story is forgotten, until a wholly unconvincing revelatory final act that messily attempts to shoehorn meaning into what was a frantic, excessively gory, bullet ballet. Tired and clichéd, despite heaps of visual invention and an admirable commitment to all-out action, Smokin’ Aces never delivers on its slender promise.

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