Smokin’ Aces mashes together at least four movies, with all plots and characters spinning around a Vegas card trickster named Buddy “Aces” Israel (unshaved Jeremy Piven). An odious, self-absorbed, and emotionally weak “celebrity” in Las Vegas, he’s the sort of stereotype that other gangster-cop movies set off as secondary. Here, Buddy, in a fit of fear for his life, decides to give up his mob associates to the feds, which means he’s now the target of any number of killers, all seeking the million dollar prize offered by the aging mafioso Primo Sparazza (Joseph Ruskin).
Designated “the great white whale of snitches” by one would-be assassin, Buddy is less a character than an occasion for lots of wild-riding plot all around him. He doesn’t even move much throughout the film, as he’s hiding away in a Vegas penthouse, trying to retain sanity while his lawyer puts finishing touches on the deal with authorities. This literal immobility produces a couple of effects: Buddy appears in sweaty close-up repeatedly, in between snorting plates of cocaine and observing his red eyes in the mirror; that’s not to say he’s self-reflective, more that he’s the ugly, stupid, self-delusional Vegas performer write extra-large (Wayne Newton makes a brief cameo, introducing Buddy on stage during his supposed heyday, an allusion to the city’s legendary appreciation of artifice and self-love).
The other effect of Buddy’s lack of movement is that all the action must eventually come to him. This is not an especially clever device, but it does pretend to give the many strands of the plot and array of characters a goal, and the movie an end point. That might be considered a good ting, as otherwise the spastic sprawl seems capable of going on forever.
The third film directed by Joe Carnahan (whose second movie, Narc, is a darkly evocative and often quite brilliant consideration of masculine intimacy and loyalties), Smokin’ Aces offers broadly differentiated assassins, competing with reckless, unsightly abandon. First there’s the FBI agents, assigned to ensure Buddy’s safety even though their understanding of the case is extremely limited (and their briefings along the way, not to mention their ferreting out of clues, gives the plot a kind of shape and you some random-seeming background on who’s headed where and maybe why.
Agents Messner (Ryan Reynolds, continuing his hard-bodied, tough-talking self-reinvention from Amityville, though not nearly so entertainingly) and Carruthers (Ray Liotta) are decent partners to one another, if vaguely and predictably opposed in style (young firebrand versus seasoned vet). Their boss, FBI deputy director Stanley Locke (Andy Garcia), looks shifty from the start, but his gruff manner is hardly a surprise in a movie stacked with clichés. Needless to say, as the plot unfolds, Locke’s treachery (which is also the institution’s) becomes clear as well.
The agents will arrive too late, or rather, just in time for the requisite bloodbath and shootout, but as they make their way to that designation, Buddy’s hideaway is barely maintained by the official security guys stationed outside his suite, or his paid personal bodyguards, the distrustful Ivy (Common) and the resentful and hugely incompetent Hugo (Joel Edgerton). As Buddy frets and his lawyer (Gilbert Gottfried) snarls over the phone, the film cuts repeatedly to the several crews of hit-people are headed his way. These include a trio of completely ridiculous skinhead brothers (Chris Pine, Kevin Durand, and Maury Serling), tattooed, tight-pantsed, and screw-faced, as brutal as you might imagine and as dumb as bags of hammers. When one of them takes time to mouth the words of forgiveness he imagines from a victim (moving the corpse’s mouth in time with his pronouncing), it seems, almost, for a moment, as if the film means to detail this character, to grant him some distinguishing moment or attribute, even if only by way of grotesque comedy. But no. The moment passes quickly, and the fellow is cast back among his brothers, as nondescript and uninteresting as he was to begin with.
The brothers are competing with a trio of bounty hunters, namely Jack (Ben Affleck) and his two pals, Pistol Pete Deeks (Peter Berg) and Hollis (Martin Henderson). (Another familial moment/unit involves a “rednecky” boy and his grandma: he gets a “comic” hard-on while demonstrating his karate skills; she keeps a dildo by her tub: oh the snarky hilarity.) Also relegated to nonsense parts—sputtering and arguing as they make their way to the prize—these three are not nearly so compelling as their distaff counterparts, the lesbian assassins Georgia (Alicia Keys) and Sharice (Taraji Henson) (described by their pimp-hatted female rep as “the hottest, heaviest bitches alive”). While several men observe them with some lascivious glee, the women tend to ignore them, until one appears swept off her feet by one very handsome male. Tensions ensue. As does horrendous bloody carnage.
This incomplete list of players doesn’t quite indicate the pile-on of firepower that will converge for the final showdown, or the convolutions of plot that draw everyone to the same location (betrayals, mishaps, sinister designs). Repetitive and unsurprising, the movie careens along with a galumphy imitation of “zip,” obviously pointing to Tarantino and Ritchie, but less detailed and even more self-satisfied, if that’s possible. Deliriously unabashed about its lack of sense, Smokin’ Aces sets up a “clever” payoff that is visible from a mile away, helped along by recurring flashbacks, as if it doesn’t quite trust you to keep up. Most of the characters have enough time on screen to mouth off with some venom, then die spectacularly. They just don’t do it soon enough.