Between 1996 and 1999, video-store shelves were littered with movies trying their best to emulate the feel of Quentin Tarantino's films. None of them got it right, and so many got it wrong in the same way—combining quirky characters, recognizable faces, self-conscious dialogue, and stylized ultra-violence with a nihilistic attitude—that they practically became a genre unto themselves. Thus Truth Or Consequences New Mexico looked a lot like The Way Of The Gun, which in turn looked a lot like The Immortals, and so forth. For some reason, writer-director Joe Carnahan (Narc) apparently seeks to honor that tradition with the stylish, vacuous, ultimately pretty dull Smokin' Aces.
A hammier-than-usual Jeremy Piven stars as Las Vegas magician/mobster-wannabe Buddy "Aces" Israel; he's about to turn into a government snitch, and a handful of people are determined to save him, in contrast to the many people trying to kill him. Showing surprising gravity, Ryan Reynolds anchors the film as an FBI agent partnered with Ray Liotta. Ordered by boss Andy Garcia to retrieve Piven from a Reno penthouse, Reynolds and Liotta are pitted against a bevy of colorful assassins, from gun-crazy redneck racists to a master of disguise to the team of Alicia Keys and Taraji P. Henson, who may be a couple or may not, depending on who's doing the telling. The cast includes Ben Affleck, Alex Rocco, and Jason Bateman, among others, but most of their characters serve one of two functions: explaining the convoluted plot, or getting shot down in a hail of bullets. Sometimes both.
It's clear that Carnahan knows how to make a movie—a few sequences here will someday still the fingers of channel-surfers searching for stimulation. But it's just as clear that he didn't quite know how to make this movie. The plot tangles until it seems irrelevant, the jokes can't push through the somber tone, and the most interesting moment apart from the action scenes involves one character using the corpse of one of the more famous cast members for a grisly ventriloquist act. There's no shortage of flash and bother, but not much to care about. An inglorious tradition marches on.