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Trapped in the closet

By Aaron Zundel

“Smokin’ Aces”Universal PicturesDirected and written by Joe CarnahanStarring: Jeremy Piven, Ryan Reynolds, Alicia Keys and Jason BatemanRated R/100 minutesOpens Jan. 26, 2007Two-and-a-half out of four stars

Back in 2002, Joe Carnahan carved out a name for himself by writing and directing “Narc,” one of the grittiest, yet well-crafted, films ever put to celluloid. In fact, there was so much grit in “Narc” that even now when I munch my popcorn in the theater I still feel a few lingering grains grinding between my molars.

But whereas “Narc” was the cinematic equivalent of chewing on a bowl of gravel, Carnahan’s new action comedy, “Smokin’ Aces,” is the equivalent of finding sand mixed into your Jell-O pudding cup. It’s not pleasant, nor is it even really edible, and it lacks the machoism (and purpose) of eating straight gravel.

No doubt, Carnahan is a master of the action sequence. And when “Smokin’ Aces” FBI Agent Richard Messner (played by Ryan Reynolds) is shooting it out with assassins, the movie is action cinema at its best-complete with expert wrap-arounds, slow motion, quick cuts and Carnahan style-but when, in the very next scene, lawyer Rupert Reed (played by Jason Bateman) comically wakes up wearing slapdash lipstick, panties and a bra, it becomes evident that, like Rupert, the movie is confused about what it is.

One wonders where Carnahan’s producer was during filming, because any normal producer would have spotted trouble right out of the gate and demanded that Carnahan make either “Snatch,” “The Usual Suspects,” “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” or “Black Hawk Down,” but not all of them at once?which Carnahan has tired to do, with miserable results.

The problem is twofold-lying both in the source material and Carnahan’s conceptualization of it. “Smokin’ Aces” begins with Buddy “Aces” Israel (played by Jeremy Piven), a Las Vegas stage magician-cum-mafioso-cum-snitch, holed up in the penthouse of a Lake Tahoe casino. His flamboyant criminal antics have finally upset the higher-ups. A cracked-out Israel has a $1 million bounty on his head, and must hide out until the FBI shows up to collect him. Throw in a dozen assassins, a few FBI agents and Jason Bateman in a bra, and you have one hell of a mess.

There are at least two, if not three, different movies inexplicably jumbled together inside “Smokin’ Aces.” Certainly Ryan Reynolds, who plays an FBI agent charged with collecting and protecting Israel, is in an entirely different movie than everyone else. Driven, serious and dramatic, Reynolds’ plotline, dialogue and action would make a fine dramatic short film in and of itself, but when you mix it all in with the “comedy” of chainsaw wielding neo-Nazis (yes, you read that right), it’s not only jarring, but downright dumb.

Oh, and did I forget to mention the erection-sporting 12-year-old Bruce Lee wannabe who, at the very least, is not only in need of Ritalin, but also a solid dragon kick to the face? That little guy comes after a despondent Israel has to betray his only friend, but before Messner breaks down crying.

This is all too bad for Jeremy Piven, an excellent actor who deserves better for his first starring role. As Israel, Piven seems as confused as the rest of the film, with the character caught between nasty smart-ass and hopeless depressive. Alicia Keys, too, picked the wrong film in which to make her debut. While she does very well for her first attempt at acting, she just can’t save the ship, despite trying very hard to keep it afloat.

Carnahan is capable of better. He’s shown us as much with “Narc.” And since every director has at least one bad film, I’m not too worried about his future. Piven, on the other hand, may never get another shot, and that would be unfortunate.

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