Smokin’ Aces Movie Review

What are we to do with “Smokin’ Aces” ? A first impulse is to give this alarmingly trigger-happy movie a bath. Jeremy Piven , playing a magician-turned-gangster, spends nearly every scene in a cold sweat, with dark, dilated eyes that make him look like an anime cokehead. (A bath would wash off that horrendous hairpiece, too.) And is there any room in the tub for Ben Affleck as a bail bondsman with a Windy City brogue or the trio of oversexed backwoods Nazis or the Ritalin-fueled karate kid who seems like an escapee from “Gummo” ? This movie would leave several rings around any bathtub.

More to the point, Joe Carnahan’s shoot-’em-up is an unreasonable provocation. It teases us with action-movie frivolity, then rubs our noses in grisly bloodletting, all in the service of a plot hinging on a million-dollar bounty for Buddy “Aces” Israel . Buddy is about to rat out his Cosa Nostra mentor for the FBI, which has placed him under witness protection. At least four different cash-hungry mob factions plan to find Buddy in his federally protected sky suite at a Tahoe luxury palace, shoot him, and rip out his heart, per his affronted mentor’s instructions.

Sadly, more than an hour of this movie is given over to talking. And not the wink-wink Quentin Tarantino kind, either. There are no sweet observations of the mundane. The characters speak in clumps of exposition. It’s like being at a table reading for some pulp series whose first installments we’ve missed. The feds, the hired guns, the bails bondsmen all fill us in by filling each other in.

Some of the talkers include a clothed and almost-human Ryan Reynolds as a fed; as his partner, Ray Liotta , who was so scary in Carnahan’s previous movie “Narc”; an excellently hopped-up Jason Bateman as a kinky yuppie; and the rapper and Gap pitchman Common , who, as one of Buddy’s bodyguards, contributes a smoldering menace that’s the hottest thing in the movie. Despite a few of these people and because of others, at some point you’re all talked out and eager for something to happen. The movie flirts with kitsch, blaxploitation , and camp, but Carnahan nudges things along without much of a bark. Where, oh, where is the foaming Rottweiler relentlessness of “Narc”?

Well, it’s waiting in the last 50 or so minutes, where the competing sides of this film are sucked toward a grisly hotel climax like debris into a vacuum bag. The plot is a little “True Romance” with a twist of “The Usual Suspects.” But really, “Smokin’ Aces” is the junkyard cousin of Steven Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s” movies, the first of which was set in Vegas hotels. (They also have a terrible Andy Garcia in common.) Soderbergh’s capers are action movies where wit stands in for violence. The violence in “Smokin’ Aces” stands in for wit. The characters are interesting only when they aim to kill.

And in that hotel sequence the mayhem feels disturbingly like combat. In a hotel across the way, the fabulous Taraji P. Henson (that singing hooker from “Hustle & Flow”) sits behind one of the biggest guns I’ve ever seen. It stands on a tripod, and when she uses it to cover her girlfriend and co-hit-lady (an icy Alicia Keys ), her targets are flung across hallways. There’s a shoot-out where the spray of bullets make an elevator look like a strobe-lit disco number from “Dreamgirls.” And the wild Nazis wield their chainsaws and cutlery with obligatory glee.

In this sequence, “Smokin’ Aces” becomes appalling, perhaps intentionally: rival factions competing to take out a man conveniently — or perhaps just carelessly — named Israel? It’s not an allegory for war. It’s a version of the real thing. Yet watching the mad abandon of the combatants and the modernity of the artillery it’s impossible not to think of the bellicose factions in the Middle East.

The movie isn’t exactly smart. Nor is it stupid. We’re meant to take the brutality seriously. Blood is spilled and tears are shed over it. But like too many Hollywood directors Carnahan seems to get a charge from staging destruction. That hotel sequence is sexy filmmaking: All the movie’s panache comes barreling out.

When it’s over, the pointlessness of the carnage becomes the movie’s backhanded point. You might even ask: Irresponsible action flick or treatise on the futility of war? But since the moral underpinnings don’t stick, these are bogus questions. The bang is strictly for a buck.