'Smokin Aces' — Not quite a winning hand 

Writer-director Joe Carnahan may owe a debt of inspiration to Quentin Tarantino and, to a lesser extent, British knockoff Guy Ritchie, but give him his due: He has a flair for stylized violence, and there are more than a few scenes in his latest, "Smokin’ Aces," that achieve a sort of manic brilliance.

Carnahan, a Sacramento native who made his cocksure debut with the aptly titled "Blood Guts Bullets and Octane" and soon waded into more sophisticated but no less dangerous waters with "Narc," enriches "Aces" with stunning set pieces and inventive camerawork. He’s even assembled a winning cast to inhabit his overpopulated, testosterone-saturated fantasy. The problem lies in the storytelling. There’s a primal thrill in the chase as a small army of hitmen hunt Buddy "Aces" Israel (Jeremy Piven) with delightfully wicked bloodlust, but the chase lasts too long and, in the critical last act, fails to make any sense.

That’s a shame, because there is a decent movie weighed down by convoluted logic and needless indulgences. There are memorable characters in Carnahan’s hyper-violent universe — Israel, a neurotic, coked-up Vegas showman, and Georgia Sykes (Alicia Keys), a slyly seductive killer, spring to mind — but too many spare parts, each with their scriptedquirks. (Jason Bateman, as a babbling drunk who enjoys wearing women’s lingerie, is wasted here. Zack Cumer, as an annoying runt in dire need of his Ritalin, should never have made it past the editing stage.)

"Aces" builds real momentum in the early going, as Carnahan sets the stage for his elaborate bloodbath. Israel, a Sinatra type more firmly entrenched in Mafia subculture, has run afoul of Cosa Nostra bigwig Primo Sparazza (Joseph Ruskin), who puts a million-dollar bounty on Buddy’s head and still-beating heart. The contract killers of the world respond in kind, and suddenly Israel’s Lake Tahoe luxury suite is overrun with depraved punks, assassins, FBI agents and even a bail bondsman (Ben Affleck) who is the film’s first casualty, but hardly the last. Like Shakespeare, Carnahan has no bones about killing off every core member of his colorful ensemble. Alas, the similarities end there.

Once the exposition is complete, Carnahan rushes headfirst into the slaughter, at which point "Aces" settles into a groove, efficient at first, that grows increasingly tedious. The frenzied mayhem is temporarily exhilarating, but too much time is spent on interminable shoot-outs that ratchet up the body count but grind the mechanics of the plot to a halt. It is, in a most literal sense, overkill.

In a desperate bid to make sense of the carnage, Carnahan throws in an eleventh-hour twist that turns an already precarious premise on its head. The result is a conclusion that seems arbitrary and hastily conceived. For all its flashes of ingenuity, "Smokin’ Aces" leaves you with the distinct feeling that Carnahan didn’t know how or when to quit.

Smokin’ Aces **

Starring Jeremy Piven, Ben Affleck, Ryan Reynolds, Ray Liotta, Alicia Keys, Andy Garcia, Common

Written and directed by Joe Carnahan

Rated R

Running time 1 hour, 49 minutes

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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