Smokin’ Aces sure starts as it means to go on. An aggressive splurge of character names, scrawled in VERY BIG LETTERS, scream from the screen... It’s a brash opening sequence for a brash film, one crammed full with famous faces flittering in and out of its very limited plot until they all merge into one screaming, violent brawl. One bloodied corpse looks the same as another, after all.
Furnishing the bedlam with some much-needed heart is writer/director Joe Carnahan’s old Narc buddy Ray Liotta and Ryan Reynolds – the latter a revelation in his first proper adult role. In a frantic, Lock, Stock-style tale of backstabbing crims and gushing claret, they are the two good-guy Feds surrounded by a carnival of freaks: Ben Affleck’s super-organised bondsman, Alicia Keys’ sultry, sexy hitwoman, her gun-crazy lesbian partner Taraji P Henson, Nestor Carbanell’s smooth killer, three bonkers neo-Nazis getting off on OTT violence (a blatant rip straight from the The Big Lebowski’s Nihilists, we should add) and a human chameleon who can disguise himself as anyone to get closer to his target. It’s a chaotic mesh-up of a dozen ideas – baddies with twitchy trigger fingers for viewers with titchy attention spans, all flash and little substance in an action ‘spectacular’.
Shining through the carnage, though, is Carnahan’s cast. The pairing of Liotta and the charismatic Reynolds aside, a grungy Affleck builds on the kudos he received for Hollywoodland. A cameo from Arrested Development’s Jason Bateman all but steals the movie, while Matthew Fox (Jack from Lost) plays a peculiarly homoerotic security guard with an even more peculiar wig. It’s a shame Andy Garcia’s smooth Fed boss only exists to spout exposition in a dodgy accent, though, and despite Piven giving good, panicked, coked-up intensity as the eponymous Aces, he’s so weepy and snotty you’re sometimes longing for some Smokin’ to occur.
Fittingly, Aces’ snazzy card tricks are mirrored by Carnahan’s directing style, as he uses everything in the filmmaker’s handbook to jazz up his movie: slo-mo, tracking shots, pumping score, epilepsy-inducing cuts... If you’re susceptible to headaches, you’d best pop some Aspirin. A puzzling, downbeat, twisty ending will add to the throb in your temples, too, its gravity awkwardly counteracting all the gunplay, chainsaw-slicing and booty-calling that’s gone before. It suggests that Smokin’ Aces is looking to impact beyond its blood-strewn hotel lobbies, even if its obsession with incidental characters, guts and gimmickry scuppers such grand illusions. No sweat: just accept it as a boorish, boy’s toys blast and you’ll find that where there’s Smokin’, there’s fire.