- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 25, 2007

Quirky dialogue, random mayhem and cute cameos can only keep our attention for so long.

The new “Smokin’ Aces” has an abundance of all three and attitude to spare, but by the final act we’re itching for the credits to roll. Swiped from the Quentin Tarantino playbook, already a decade old and growing mustier by the minute, “Aces” starts strong but ends with even less than a whimper.

The tight prologue tells us the Mafia is on the run in the U.S., but a stubborn crime lord named Primo Sparazza (Joseph Ruskin) is keeping gangster hope alive. The feds have a chance to break Sparazza, finally, thanks to a corrupt magician named Buddy “Aces” Israel (Jeremy Piven, his chances for leveraging his “Entourage” fame flickering). If Buddy testifies against Sparazza, the whole criminal gang could collapse. So the bad guys let loose with every two-bit hit man in Las Vegas to make sure Buddy doesn’t sing.

The hit man parade includes a foxy killer (Alicia Keys, who brings beauty but little else to her role), a trio of neo-Nazi freaks and a master of disguise (Tommy Flanagan) who generates the most viewer intrigue. Even a bail bondsman (Ben Affleck, low-key but menacing) and his crew are in on the hunt.

FBI agents Donald Carruthers (Ray Liotta) and Richard Messner (Ryan Reynolds) have the unenviable task of protecting Buddy until he’s ready to stand trial.

And after a few minutes watching Buddy on screen, you’re practically begging for him to be whacked.

The elaborate, albeit unoriginal, setup is pretty good by shoot ‘em-up standards, but it’s all a pretext for a highly orchestrated series of set pieces which grow increasingly inane. Little that ensues makes sense, but writer-director Joe Carnahan (“Narc”) stages some of it with a clear, concise eye. Let’s give him a story, some identifiable characters and maybe a dose of humanity and see what he comes up with.

Here, he’s working with a cast of “types,” not real people, and only the strength of his troopers (Andy Garcia, Mr. Liotta and Jason Bateman in a tiny but hilarious role) keeps him grounded.

“Aces” cares a great deal about gunplay, both the sounds of the explosions and how the human body can absorb bullet after bullet and still come back for more. The final reel packs a doozy of a twist, but audiences will be too dazed to bother making sense of it. They’ll probably want to slink into an adjoining theater and hope “Charlotte’s Web” is still playing.

“Smokin’ Aces” offers nothing new to its core audience and wastes its gaudy cast.

But thanks to Mr. Carnahan’s pyrotechnics, it’s rarely dull.

**

TITLE: “Smokin’ Aces”

RATING: R (Strong violence, bloody imagery, drug use, adult language and mature themes)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Joe Carnahan. Music by Clint Mansell.

RUNNING TIME: 107 minutes

WEB SITE: www.smokinaces.net

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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