I see from what other reviewers are saying that I'm not the only one who was reminded of both Guy Ritchie's first film and just about anything written or directed by Quentin Tarantino while watching SMOKIN' ACES, the hyper-kinetic feature film from writer-director Joe Carnahan. This movie hearkens back to his debut feature, in its style and execution and lacks some of the more subtler touches he displayed with NARC, his little-seen brutally violent 2002 drama.
The latter film offered a juicy role for Ray Liotta, so it's perhaps no surprise to find the actor among the large cast of SMOKIN' ACES. In fact, the movie opens with Liotta and Ryan Reynolds playing FBI agents Carruthers and Messner. They are on a stakeout, eavesdropping on the home of elderly and sickly mobster Primo Sperraza (Joseph Ruskin) -- the last of the most powerful member of "La Cosa Nostra" we have been told in the opening scroll. Carruthers and Messner overhear one of the gangster's henchmen (Alex Rocco) hatching a plot involving one Buddy "Aces" Israel (Jeremy Piven), a Las Vegas entertainer with ties to Sperraza and who has recently turned state's evidence. The agents soon realize that there's a $1 million bounty on Israel's head.
As such, several teams of hired assassins are out to get Israel, including three tattooed, punkish brothers (Chris Pine, Kevin Durand and Maury Sterling), a pair of African American women (Taraji P. Henson and singer Alicia Keys in her feature film debut) and an international hitman (Nestor Carbonell). There's also a trio of bounty hunters (Ben Affleck, Peter Berg and Martin Henderson) out for the reward. All of them are heading for a hotel in Lake Tahoe, where "Aces" Israel has taken refuge.
SMOKIN' ACES requires that the audience pay close attention to what's going on since there's so much happening and so many characters to follow. Carnahan doesn't help matters, though, with a sound design that includes overlapping dialogue and loud music. But the gist of the outline of the story can be gleaned and one can sit back and try to enjoy the ride.
The movie is staged in a sort of frenzied, hellzapoppin' style -- much like Guy Ritchie's early films. Like both Ritchie and Tarantino, the dialogue he has written is full of slang. Carnahan does show a flair for staging some spectacular sequences, and he does manage to get some good performances out of his large, colorful cast. The standout is Reynolds who shows he's capable of carrying a more dramatic piece, although he does flash some of his comic timing. Liotta does an okay job in an underwritten part. Andy Garcia is on hand as a high ranking FBI agent and there are some intriguing performances by Joel Edgerton, hip-hop singer Common (né Lonnie Rashid Lynn), Curtis Armstrong and Jason Bateman.
One of the big plot twists was telegraphed pretty early in the film, and I had figured it out long before it was spelled out. But Carnahan added a twist upon that twist, and it was one I hadn't seen coming.
Overall, SMOKIN' ACES is a passable ride of film. It's not great art or great cinema but it does entertain, much in the same way that a cartoon like Road Runner does.
Rating: C+ MPAA Rating: R for strong bloody violence, pervasive language, some nudity and drug use Running time: 108 mins.