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MOVIE REVIEW: 'Aces' goes up in smoke

In "Smokin' Aces," writer-director Joe Carnahan follows professional assassins competing to collect $1 million for killing a Vegas star on the skids (Jeremy Piven). This setup entails impressive camera work and editing, loads of posturing and no ...

In "Smokin' Aces," writer-director Joe Carnahan follows professional assassins competing to collect $1 million for killing a Vegas star on the skids (Jeremy Piven). This setup entails impressive camera work and editing, loads of posturing and no rooting interest.

Carnahan ("Narc"), a visually assured filmmaker, keeps the viewer occupied for stretches with balletic violence and achingly beautiful shots of Lake Tahoe water and sky. So, it takes a while for the emptiness of this enterprise to sink in.

Empty doesn't necessarily mean bad, if there's enough verve and nihilistic attitude. But Carnahan, after glorifying violence and amorality throughout much of the film, tries to insert a heart and soul at the 11th hour. This means that a picture already too redolent of Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie can't find its own tone.

Coupled with an obvious plot twist, this shift in tone spells disaster for the third act. Only some good performances and Carnahan's keen visual eye keep the film from being a disaster overall. But as Carnahan's follow-up film to "Narc," a picture of actual depth, "Smokin' Aces" is a big disappointment.

Piven plays top Las Vegas illusionist and all-around entertainer Buddy "Aces" Israel - called "Aces" because of his flair for card tricks and because a guy named Buddy needs a nickname. First colluding with the mob and then committing crimes himself before finally turning government snitch, Israel is the subject of a powerful mob figure's rumored $1 million offer to any assassin who can take him out.

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We learn this during a phone conversation monitored by two FBI agents (Ray Liotta and Ryan Reynolds) during which a surprisingly candid mob guy spills the beans. Indeed, he's so forthcoming that you half expect him to end the conversation with a tidbit about Jimmy Hoffa and an end zone.

The FBI agents are trying to keep tabs on an array of professional killers looking for a big score. These include a pair of young women (Taraji Henson and Alicia Keys) and three neo-Nazi brothers who seem to have sprung from a doodle by a 13-year-old who discovered "A Clockwork Orange" and "Tank Girl" on the same day.

Ben Affleck, playing a bounty hunter, narrates a section of the film that further elucidates Israel's predicament. Sleazy but smooth, Affleck makes a likable protagonist.

That is, for about five minutes, until it becomes clear that Israel, a character who inspires shrugs at best, is the true protagonist. Holed up in the penthouse suite of a Lake Tahoe hotel with hookers and mounds of cocaine, he's a bathrobe-clad cliche. The only noteworthy aspect to his unwashed hedonism is the incongruity of seeing it played out before a backdrop of beautiful Lake Tahoe.

Prostitutes draped across the hotel suite and dialogue about bodily fluids heighten an aggressive lad-mag attitude that urges the audience to either get the joke or be a square. But actual jokes, rarely sufficiently clever to start with, vanish for stretches as Carnahan tries to engender sympathy for Israel.

Piven acts the part beautifully, which is to say that he makes a believable scumbag, whether Israel is barking orders or reflecting on his hollowed-out sense of self. But Piven's bully act is familiar from "Entourage," and it doesn't help that there is zero reason to like his character.

Israel, who turned state's evidence, isn't even loyal to his criminal pals. Plus, caring about drugged-up guys in bathrobes gets you nowhere, as Alfred Molina in "Boogie Nights" showed us.

Yet, in the same film, Jason Bateman takes the tired character of an unsavory lawyer and makes him hilarious. Granted, his is a tiny role.

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Chris Pine ("Just My Luck") generates a few laughs as the most cartoonishly menacing of the neo-Nazi brothers. But not even Laurence Olivier could sell the conceit of the brothers, who are so ridiculously over the top that their every appearance serves to underscore the film's haphazard qualities.

Keys is plausibly tough in her screen-acting debut, though Henson outshines her in pure appeal. Also a standout in "Hustle & Flow," Henson oozes charisma as the more thoughtful, loquacious female killer, who carries a massive gun and harbors a giant crush on her partner.

The presence of Liotta is bittersweet, since he also starred in the far superior "Narc." But he does take part in the film's best scene, which shows that although Carnahan might not be able to match Tarantino or Ritchie, he can find new and interesting ways to showcase gunplay.

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