The title of Smokin' Aces -- the new slam-bam, let's-all-get-together-and-kill-some-guy thriller -- doesn't really mean too much of anything. But it sure is a cool name for a movie. It reeks of masculinity, like the remnant of an explosion at a high-stakes card game where one man's bullets are another man's bloodbath. This movie has a cock and balls, and trust me when I tell you it's not for pussies.
There's almost something reassuring about seeing so much testosterone in one place. It makes you think that maybe we can win the war after all. Writer/director Joe Carnahan constructs his story out of two cultural mythologies: the legendary battle between the FBI and the mob, and the neologisms of postmodern action cinema. Smokin' Aces doesn't so much wink at us as just twitch a little now and then, taking itself seriously in a way you can't seriously take seriously.
OK, so there's this guy, Buddy "Aces" Israel (Jeremy Piven), who was once a promising Vegas act: card shark, illusionist, showman, asshole, douche bag -- stuff like that. He started hanging out with mobsters, doing the whole "Sinatra thing," until he decided to become one of them. Now he's "the great white whale of snitches," holed up in the penthouse of a Tahoe casino while his lawyer negotiates a witness-protection deal with the feds.
They'd better work fast. Primo Sparazza, Buddy's mob boss, has put out a $1 million contract on his life to any professional hit person who does the job -- in 18 hours. All Primo needs for proof is Buddy's heart. So the teams assemble: a trio of white guys (Ben Affleck, Peter Berg, Martin Henderson); a pair of black feminist lesbian lovers (Alicia Keys, Tarija P. Henson) and their Big Mama boss; three punk-redneck brothers ("same skank mom, different deadbeat dads"); a steely master of disguise; a spiritual Latino (Nestor Carbonell); and a mysterious Swede about whom the feds know nothing. Meanwhile, two agents (Ryan Reynolds, Ray Liotta), ordered by their boss (Andy Garcia), rush to Tahoe to protect their witness and head off the killers.
As it turns out, that's not quite what Smokin' Aces is all about. There's a twist or two at the end -- part government corruption, part baby-daddy drama -- that makes it all very "personal." But don't worry: You won't shed a tear, even when the story's sole surviving hero does.
This is all pretty good stuff, if you like watching a thunderstorm of rapid gunfire ripping bodies apart now and then. Just don't get too attached to any of the characters (the Oscar-winner is the first to go). Smokin' Aces is one of the most depressing Hollywood movies I can remember seeing in a while, except that it's all just for fun anyway. And there's no time to stop for sex: Sure, we meet Buddy the morning after an orgy, his penthouse strewn with spent women presumably exhausted from his prowess. But the scene turns into a dressing-down of Buddy's dumb Russian butler, who got jism all over his $12,000 bathrobe.
The acting in Smokin' Aces is consistently sharp -- Jason Bateman has a hilarious scene-stealing cameo -- and surprisingly, it's way under the top. Everyone's playing a type, and the actors approach it like a master class: You're a tree, you're a rock, you're a tadpole, you're a coked-up prestidigitator with an over-inflated sense of his own machismo. (Think Scarface, with one-tenth the bravado.) Carnahan unravels his myriad characters and situations without getting us tangled up in any of it. Smokin' Aces is relatively easy to follow if you pay attention, and it's often funny in ways you don't expect.
It's also its own best metaphor. "I can shape it, I can shift it, I can make it as real as this room," says Buddy, who's never without a deck of cards that he fans and flips and sprays at people. So can the movies, of course. Now do you get it? You might say that the moral of Buddy's story is live fast, die middle-aged, and leave a beautiful hairpiece. Like I said, good stuff.