By Pete Vonder Haar | January 27, 2007

Just as every stand-up comedian wants to be a rock star and every astronaut wants to be a race car driver, so to does every Hollywood screenwriter want to be an assassin or gangster. I’d bet cash money that even those writers with no visible interest in the genre (Nora Ephron, to name one obvious example) have a script glamorizing the criminal element buried somewhere deep in their hard drive.

Joe Carnahan, on the other hand, wears his love for the genre on his sleeve. In his latest, “Smokin’ Aces,” he eschews the relatively realistic setting of his previous film “Narc,” and goes balls-to-wall nuts with weird characters and concentrated violence. It’s formulaic and obnoxious, but could be acceptable if you’re in the proper frame of mind.

During the rather convoluted intro (we’re introduced to upwards of 20 characters in roughly 10 minutes), we learn that Las Vegas Entertainer of the Year Buddy “Aces” Israel (Jeremy Piven) is turning state’s evidence against the Mob pals he made during his years as a showman. It seems Buddy wanted to dabble in the gangster life, too bad he wasn’t any good at it. Now the future rat is holed up in the penthouse suite of the Nomad Hotel in Lake Tahoe, waiting for his lawyer to finalize the deal.

Naturally, Mob capo Primo Sparazza would like nothing better than to silence Israel before he spills the beans, so he puts out a $1 million contract on the former magician. This, in turn, draws the expected throng of improbably quirky hitmen. There’s the mysterious Swede, the badass black female team of Georgia and Sharice (Alicia Keys and Taraji Henson), the psychotic Pasquale “The Plague” Acosta (Nestor Carbonell), master of disguise Lazlo Soot (Tommy Flanagan), and the white supremacist Tremor brothers. Throw in two FBI agents dispatched to get to Israel before the assassins do (Ryan Reynolds and Ray Liotta), a bail bondsman (Ben Affleck) and some ex-cops, and an inside plot by Sparazza’s lieutenants to ransom the snitch and the stage would seem to be set for some joyously wanton bloodshed.

Just so we’re clear, “Smokin’ Aces” isn’t a very good movie. The often clumsy dialogue serves as a constant reminder how hard Carnahan is trying to be cool, and he doesn’t have to reach very far into his action movie cliché bag to give us a veteran cop with a hotheaded partner and a government cover-up. So many characters are in play it’s impossible to remotely care about any of them, especially Buddy, the only one Carnahan takes the time to humanize. Finally, the Big Honking Plot Twist is telegraphed so early and in such poor fashion you’ll spend the whole movie telling yourself it couldn’t be that obvious.

And yet, there are some glimpses of quality amongst all the by-the-numbers mayhem. Jason Bateman has a fantastic cameo as Israel’s sleazy lawyer, and Alicia Keys doesn’t stink up the joint (and has extremely agreeable legs). Finally, Piven has so completely nailed down the “obnoxious prick” archetype he no longer has to try, yet his Buddy Israel is the apex of a*****e characters.

You’ll leave the theater wanting more, which is the movie’s biggest problem. Had Carnahan stuck more with the antics of his rogues’ gallery and spent less time with the predictable FBI story, he’d have ended up with a work of glorious depravity. As it is, “Smokin’ Aces” spends too much time straddling the line between exuberant carnage and serious plotline when it should’ve gleefully backflipped into the former. Grudgingly recommended, but only if you’ve put your cerebral cortex in neutral for the evening.

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