May the best hitman win.
A frantic and frequently amusing cocktail of Tarantino cool and Hong Kong bullet ballet, Joe (Narc) Carnahan's Smokin' Aces delivers some inspired moments of action and dark comedy in its dizzying-comic book plot about a rogue's gallery of killers on the hunt for a mob informer. At the core of Carnahan's bloody shaggy-dog tale is Buddy Israel (Jeremy Piven, offering a more desperate take on his standard hustler persona), a Vegas magician who's turned informant against the mobsters who have treated him as their personal entertainment. Wishing to close Buddy's overactive mouth permanently, the mob capo puts a bounty on the two-bit showman's head, and a horde of hitmen descends on Buddy's digs to claim the prize. The unholy crew of gunmen offer the movie's most inspired (and outlandish) moments, with R&B singer Alicia Keys (as a cool, Foxy Brown-esque assassin), Nestor Carbonell (as a torture-minded sadist), Ben Affleck and Peter Berg (low-key bail bondsmen) and Chris Pine (the leader of a trio of semi-savage brothers) among the more memorable villains. Ryan Reynolds, Ray Liotta, and Andy Garcia represent the other side of the coin as FBI agents determined to get to Buddy before the legion of doom, and the clashes between both factions produce some eye-popping gunplay. If there's any complaint to be made about Smokin' Aces, it's that the tone shifts between action-drama and hipster comedy feel forced (Carnahan struck a firmer balance between the two in his 1998 indie effort, Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane), but the performances and shootout set pieces, as well as Carnahan's hyperactive camera work, do much to make those transitions palatable. Eagle-eyed audience members will note the presence veteran scene stealers Curtis Armstrong (Ray), David Proval (The Sopranos), and Alex Rocco (The Godfather's Moe Green) in supporting roles. -- Paul Gaita