Just because you prefer the films of Federico Fellini or Terrence Malick doesn’t mean you can’t just sit back and enjoy a good, old fashioned hyper-violent action movie every now and then. They’ve got to be ultra-stylistic or a glorious celebration of action cliche excess (Shoot ‘Em Up), but it’s great to have a movie that’s a purely visceral experience (as opposed to cerebral or emotional). These films almost never qualify as “great” movies, but for fans of film technique, stylistic action movies can give your mind a break while simultaneously stimulating your love of visually exciting film-making. 2007’s Smokin’ Aces is one of those films. And although it starts tripping over its own feet with its unnecessarily serious ending (which clashes with the mood of the rest of the film), if you can look past that failing, it’s remain a high-octane thrill ride ever since it was released.

In the realm of the Guy Ritchie films such as Snatch or Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels (though with only half of Ritchie’s wit), Smokin’ Aces is a crime action thriller where the only thing higher than the body count is the number of players and schemes along for the ride. After Mafioso Primo Sparazza puts a hit on mob informant and Vegas showman Buddy “Aces” Israel (Jeremy Piven), just about every assassin worth his weight comes out to take him down. FBI Agents Richard Messner (Ryan Reynolds) and Donald Carruthers (Ray Liotta) race to the Lake Tahoe penthouse suite where Israel is holed up, hoping to catch up with him before the army of hit men bears down on him. On the opposite side of the law are heavy hitters including three psychotic nazi brothers, two African American female assassins (including the sultry Alicia Keys), and a man notorious for changing his face to make the perfect kill.

The film’s almost absurdly star-studded cast has to be the biggest selling point behind the clever and visceral visual style of the film. Like the disaster movies of the 1970s, it’s almost a question of “who isn’t” in this movie. You have Ryan Reynolds, Andy Garcia, and Ray Liotta as FBI Agents. Jeremy Piven is the target and rapper Common is his primary bodyguard. There are three cast members from Lost in major or minor roles. That’s Matthew Fox as hotel security guard. Nestor Carbonell as one of the primary hit men and Kevin Durand as one of the inbred psycho assassins. Alicia Keys and Taraji P. Henson are the female assassins. Ben Affleck is a bail bondsman hoping to capture Israel alive before the hit men smoke him. And none other than Captain Kirk himself, Chris Pine, plays another one of the psycho brothers. Just to round things out, Jason Bateman is a cross-dressing lawyer hoping to not lose the bail he put down on Israel.

In the cast, a few stars obviously push their way to the front. Jeremy Piven is a wonder as always. Although he starts the film out in what can be kindly called “Full Ari Gold” mode, he generally finds himself beaten down over the course of the movie by the possibility of his impending doom and the fact that he is likely about to sell out all of his closest friends. Inhabiting the coked out, arrogant, regretful, and, ultimately, terrified Buddy Israel is simply further proof that Jeremy Piven is a talented actor who got his big breaks far too late in life. Common proves that he is a capable actor in his flirtatious scenes with Alicia Keys as well as the moments where he confronts Israel about his portrayal. Ryan Reynolds also admirably acquits himself as the FBI Agent who regularly learns that there are more and more layers to this seemingly simple case.

The film’s influences are fairly obvious. Trying to pair the quick and snappy dialogue of a Tarantino film with the gambit pileups of a Guy Ritchie movie, writer/director Joe Carnahan’s actual achievements are more of a mixed bag. When the film hits its marks, it’s a wonderful thing. Whether it’s the darkly comic (but inexplicably hilarious) moment where Chris Pine’s Tremor brother forces a corpse to mime out his apology for killing him or Taraji P. Henson’s assassin opening fire on a room full of feds with a 50. sniper rifle, the movie finds the magic balance between dark humor and a wee bit of the old ultra violence. However, when the film tries to be remotely serious, it simultaneously snaps the comically violent tone of the film while also simply failing to actually be dramatic. The awful twist ending is the ultimate example of this flaw in the film’s system.

The film isn’t going to please the art-house crowd (although I consider myself to be a part of that crowd. I can just also appreciate more broadly appealing films), but if you like smart and witty action films, you could do a hell of a lot worse than Smokin’ Aces. Sometimes all that matters for a movie is whether or not it’s fun. And if you can’t find anything fun about Smokin’ Aces, you need your testosterone levels checked (unless you’re a chick and just naturally don’t have any. Still think women can find the film appealing though). It may not be as good as stylistic thrillers like La Femme Nikita or Leon: The Professional, but not everybody can be a Luc Besson. If you need your fix of hyper-kinetic, over-the-top action, you can start here.

Final Score: B

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