There's no reinvention of the wheel in this made-for-video-game movie, but Smokin' Aces is filthily good fun for (primarily) guys--and, no, it's not Quentin Tarantino lite. The only thing that's ''lite'' is the story.
Exposition is often an unfortunate but necessary evil in movies, but at least Smokin' Aces hammers it immediately. After we are privy to everything two FBI agents (Ray Liotta and Ryan Reynolds) overhear during a tapped phone call at mob boss Primo Sparazza's (Joseph Ruskin) home, the table is quickly set: There's a $1 million bounty on the head of magician Buddy 'Aces' Israel (Jeremy Piven) for squealing. It's a hefty sum and, as we're then told by a bail bondsman (Ben Affleck), interested in collecting the "reward," a veritable all-star team of criminal masterminds has lined up to try and smoke Aces--including: the Tremor brothers (Chris Pine, Kevin Durand, Maury Sterling), a trio of uber-sadistic skinheads; a tag team of feministic hitwomen (Alicia Keys, Taraji P Henson); a ruthless, knife-wielding madman (Nestor Carbonell); a near shapeshifter (Tommy Flanagan), himself a sort of magician; and the bail bondsman narrator's two buddies (Martin Henderson, Peter Berg) and oddball lawyer (Jason Bateman). Not only is everyone up against the Feds, but they'll also have to survive Aces' henchmen (Common, Christopher Michael Holley) and each other's lust for the (blood) money.
Not that he's the proverbial "lead"--no one really is--but Piven, in his first true Entourage-afforded role, is the story's central figure. Surprisingly deep and multilayered, Piven's performance is very strong and affecting but buried beneath constant rapid cuts to one of the seemingly infinite other characters' high-octane arcs. Reynolds, ably switching from Van Wilder-type roles to cop with a 'tude, is the closest thing to a good guy along with his partner in non-crime, Liotta, who was a perfect fit in the director's Narc, just like he is here. But the baddies are where the real fun's at. It's fine that Affleck's role is extremely short, but out of his crew, for Henderson (The Ring) to get more face time than Bateman is criminal. Bateman's performance is quick-witted a la his Arrested Development character but even funnier. Oh, well--onto the musician actors: Common and Keys, both essentially making debuts, simply perpetuate the truism of musicians having a much easier time of acting than vice versa, especially Keys, who plays totally against the pop-queen image she's built via music. Andy Garcia also has a small and predictable role as an FBI deputy, and Matthew Fox makes a blink-and-you'll-miss-him cameo.
Writer-director Joe Carnahan picked a bad release time. The buzz-ards feel the need to compare it to the recently Oscar-ed The Departed, and, hell, you'd think Pulp Fiction was just released, too, with the way Tarantino's name is being name-dropped. Neither is fair, and, truth is, the only similarity is the casual bloodshed and its often comedic context courtesy of Carnahan. The director, who burst onto the scene with '02's aforementioned Narc, doesn't reinvent the wheel here, but he's not ripping off anyone more than any other director. He actually imparts a good deal of originality for the better part of the movie, blending comedy with carnage at breakneck speeds. The issue of not having a traditional "hero" also has its pluses, because you'll never be able to look at someone's face and name and predict his or her lifespan. But still, the story is where Smokin' Aces falters. The beginning and end seem like pieces of two different flicks, and nothing more than stabs at coolness is actually transpiring in between. Ultimately, Carnahan's spunky effort makes for great but forgettable fun; however, you get the feeling he didn't quite want it to be so forgettable.
Hollywood.com rated this film 2 1/2 stars.