DVD Release Date:  April 17, 2007
Theatrical Release Date:  January 26, 2007
Rating:  R (for strong bloody violence, pervasive language, some nudity and drug use)
Genre:  Crime Drama
Running Time:  109 min.
Director:  Joe Carnahan
Actors:  Jeremy Piven, Ray Liotta, Ryan Reynolds, Ben Affleck, Jason Bateman, Common, Andy Garcia, Alex Rocco, Alicia Keys, Taraji Henson, Martin Henderson, Mike Falkow

In the years following the breakout success of Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, numerous films imitated Tarantino's shocking violence and humorous but profane dialogue.

Eventually, the number of copycat films subsided, but the remnants of Pulp Fiction still can be found in the occasional new release. Smokin' Aces is one of those films, full of criminals, carnality and crisp, but often profane, dialogue.

Though it's derivative, Smokin' Aces also is surprisingly stylish and, for much of its running time, entertaining. But it's not noble, pure or lovely. It's an empty exercise in cinematic excess.

Jeremy Piven stars as Buddy "Aces" Israel, an FBI informant who's about to turn state's evidence against the mob. Standing in the way is a $1 million bounty on Israel's head and a parade of lowlifes hungry for the money. They pursue Israel to a hotel in Lake Tahoe, where he's under the protection of two FBI agents (Ray Liotta and Ryan Reynolds).

Trying to get to Israel first: two hit women (Alicia Keys and Taraji Henson), three twisted brothers who know too well how to use a chainsaw, and, eventually, even those close to Israel, who fear he'll sell them out. "They are immoral, ruthless, without restraint," warns a top FBI agent (Andy Garcia) who recognizes the threat to Israel's life.

The bloody finale is followed by a lengthy, head-spinning explanation from Garcia's FBI agent that doesn't sit well with the character who hears it - or all that well with most viewers, who will be struggling to keep up with the too clever wrap-up.

And yet, Smokin' Aces is not easy to dismiss. It doesn't amount to much - that's its biggest flaw - but while it's unspooling, it not only holds viewers' attention but does so with cinematic verve. From the opening moments that introduce the motley crew of characters, to a gruesome hotel shootout that includes the most ominous use of elevators since "Barton Fink," the film crackles with energy.

Director Joe Carnahan ("Narc") gives the movie its propulsive drive, while cinematographer Mauro Fiore, who worked on director Michael Bay's The Island, fills both his widescreen compositions to the edges.

Who, though, is admirable in this film? The FBI agents are dutiful, but not the focus of the story. Instead, the story's main focus - Piven's Israel - is its weakest element. The side characters are colorful but merciless, greedy and mostly unsympathetic. (Keys and Ryan are two standouts.) A cameo performance by Jason Bateman is the film's comic highlight, but again, the language is crude.

The screenplay includes a smattering of dialogue about God and heaven, but the circumstances in which these subjects are raised are - at least in one instance - absurd, robbing the words of any lasting power.

Still, there's some fire with this "Smoke," even if the end result is nothing but ashes.

CAUTIONS:

  • Language/Profanity:  Lord's name taken in vain; multiple profanities; racial epithets.
  • Violence:  Excessive, lingering images of people being gunned down; a hand with three blown-off fingers; a woman falls through a glass table; a man is stabbed at close range; a man is engulfed in flames; a woman describes a suicide; a character puts a gun in his mouth and prepares to pull the trigger.
  • Sex/Nudity:  A torture scene includes male nudity; prostitutes are shown in lingerie; one woman is shown topless; discussion of semen; allusions to a lesbian relationship; a man appears to be masturbating.
  • Drinking/Smoking/Drug Use:  All three are shown.