Jeremy Piven playing the degenerate playboy? Big stretch there! Then again, not much in Smokin' Aces pushes itself too far in any one direction. The movie seemingly wants to be like Ocean's Eleven or Snatch, stylistically speaking, but those films don't take themselves too seriously, while Smokin' Aces suffers deeply from taking-self-too-seriously-itis. Yet there isn't enough fleshed-out drama to put this movie in the ranks with real mobster films either. What the movie has plenty of is humor, thanks to many amusing situations and a talented cast.
The previews made me think this was Jeremy Piven's movie, when in fact, it firmly belongs to Ryan Reynolds. By the end, in fact, Piven's presence is more of a nuisance in the telling of Reynolds' story. Reynolds plays Richard, an FBI agent assigned to the case of Primo Sparazza, a mob boss suspected of being responsible for over a hundred murders. Piven plays Buddy "Aces" Israel, a mobster-turned-illusionist who used to work with Sparazza. The FBI has offered Israel full protection if he will tell them everything he knows about Sparazza. For the details and my take,
The movie begins with Richard and his superior Donald (Ray Liotta) listening in on Primo's phone lines. They overhear a conversation in which someone reveals that Primo wants Israel dead and is shelling out $1 million for the deed. From there we are introduced to the myriad gangsters who will be competing to kill Israel. For much of the remainder of the film, we witness their attempts, mostly resulting in bloodbaths set to rockin' music.
That's the plot, basically. Oh, sure, there's a big ol' twist at the end, a sorta mystery that gets solved, and a big hysterical moment for Reynolds to flop around in. But the drama comes too late and all at once. If the writers wanted some tension, they probably shouldn't have littered the film with a gazillion superfluous characters that nobody can keep track of. Trying to keep straight everyone's motivations and backgrounds got too annoying, so I stopped caring much about any of them.
The best scenes involve a pasty alcoholic named Rip Reed, brilliantly played by Jason Bateman. The other stand-out comedic performance comes from none other than Matthew Fox, though I dare you to spot him at first glance. Piven is spot-on (again, not a stretch) as the former mobster accustomed to living the Vegas high life of parties, drugs and women. Callous, spiteful, and armed with an endless supply of sarcastic comments, he is rarely seen without his cards: playing with them and, most often, spilling them all over himself as, I suppose, some kind of look-how-sloppy-and-desperate-I've-become symbolism.
The hit people are basic character sketches, with a few standouts. Alicia Keys plays Georgia, a sexy seductress-assassin who is lusted after by her loudmouthed partner Sharice (Taraji Hensen). There is no shortage of gratuitous shots of Keys' curvaceous body, but as a cold-hearted character, she falls short, too thoughtful for such a harsh role. Ben Affleck is hit man Jack Dupree, whose attempts to appear "street" are hilariously misplaced (though that probably wasn't the intention). More committed to the smack-talking image is scrawny preteen Warren (Zach Cumer), who tries to intimidate battered hit man Hollis (Martin Henderson) with his hyperactive combat moves. Perhaps the best moment is seeing Hollis curled up in dirty bath water, missing half of one hand, while Warren shrieks and karate chops the air in front of him for a solid minute or so.
Smokin' Aces is great for moments like that: bizarre set-ups, wacky character traits, surprising moments of humor. It makes the mistake, however, of trying to switch over to heavy drama. The audience's sympathy is never earned, and then the movie demands viewers to care about the ending, which is silly. If the film were considerably shorter, with fewer characters and a lighter tone overall, I might recommend it. As it is, it's good for a few laughs and little else.