January used to be Hollywood’s official doldrums month. It still is, only now it’s a snazzier, more depraved wasteland. It’s when audiences flock to ultraviolent hip trash to slap themselves out of the art stupor brought on by the season of Important Awards Films. The latest adrenaline shot to the solar plexus is Smokin’ Aces, a cheerfully disposable gangland freak-show thrill ride that’s been directed by the gifted Joe Carnahan (Narc) as if he were trying to give the audience a seizure.
Early on, a couple of federal agents, Messner (Ryan Reynolds) and Carruthers (Ray Liotta), sit in a surveillance van, punchy with boredom, eavesdropping on the late-night conversation of an ancient, prune-faced mobster across the street. The scene is edited so fast, with so many sound layers competing for your attention (I was still trying to digest the fact that Reynolds, the comic star of National Lampoon’s Van Wilder and Blade: Trinity, had graduated to playing furrowed crime investigators), that even the laziest action-junkie couch potatoes may find themselves leaning forward, working to take it all in — a not unpromising sensation for an underworld movie.
Cross-cutting as if on a cinematic crank jag, Carnahan leaps between tiny, glinting flashbacks, with half a dozen minor deadbeats — including the droll Ben Affleck as a mook of a bail bondsman — passing the narration to each other like a baton. It seems that Buddy ”Aces” Israel (Jeremy Piven), a Las Vegas stage magician, became a noted underworld mascot, a leech who liked to hang out with gangsters, digging the drugs, the money, the girls, and finally — big mistake — the delusion that he was a gangster, too. He began to hatch criminal schemes that went wrong, and now, to extricate himself from the mess he made, he has agreed to rat out his Mob connections to the FBI.
As Buddy sits in the penthouse of the Nomad, a crystal-chintz-and-speckled-mirror casino in Lake Tahoe, a collection of freelance assassins, four in all, each more gonzo than the last, converge upon the city, trying to be the first to kill Buddy and cut out his heart (literally). Piven, more than any actor alive, can play high anxiety and mock it at the same time. I do wish Buddy were less of a patsy, though. There’s a bizarre sequence where he wakes up in the penthouse after a wild night, surrounded by a dozen hookers passed out on the floor. It’s like the aftermath of an explosion in a mannequin factory, and the joke — a tweak at Buddy’s excess — is itself overdone.
Carnahan’s sense of comedy, evident in just about every line of his Tarantinoid here’s-the-fact-Jack repartee (”We wait any longer, someone’s going to dead this fool!”), tries too hard to be cool; it’s his cornball assertion of hard-boiled masculine style. Yet Smokin’ Aces has a catchy, pungent spirit, with an invention that seldom lets up. Carnahan will start a scene out of nowhere, with, say, a Rastafarian in a wheelchair machine-gunning half a dozen people in a downtown street (the punchline is the getaway), and his assassins keep upping the ante on sociopathic irreverence. The most enjoyable of these killers are a scar-faced master of disguise, embodied by Tommy Flanagan with a nearly Lecter-like wit and fluidity, and a tag team of lesbian homegirl sniper divas. They’re played by Alicia Keys, who has just enough sleek attitude to evoke the young Pam Grier, and Taraji Henson, who convincingly mans — or, should I say, womans — a weapon powerful enough to have Donald Rumsfeld muttering with envy.
Smokin’ Aces is one of those movies in which criminals lock and load their guns as rhythmically as rock drummers, and the camera work is so fetishistically propulsive that it’s like the filmmaker’s own glorified form of gun-cocking. Each time a new unhinged killer walks onto the screen, he or she may be hero or villain — in this movie, it’s hard to tell the difference — yet either way, you’re invited to revel vicariously in the power, the surge of aggression served up raw and uncut. Carnahan, who gave Narc unusual gravitas for a police thriller, is having his overbaked action jollies, and yet, in his so-passé-it’s-almost-fresh Tarantino gloss, he’s also a one-man pop culture vacuum cleaner. Smokin’ Aces is like a Cuisinart mash-up of Reservoir Dogs, Ocean’s Eleven, GoodFellas, The Usual Suspects, and a Rob Zombie psycho horror flick. You can’t take it seriously, but the movie is as lively as it is debased. The most decadent thing about it is that it’s the sort of entertainment that people with genuine talent now make.