To call Smokin’ Aces sleazy is an understatement. It’s a shotgun blast of nihilism with the bullets made out of compact flesh from a rusty meat-grinder. Once the trigger is pulled, the shrapnel propels itself into a block of cheese that will not be satisfactory to everyone’s tastes. But Joe Carnahan isn’t interested in taste here. The focus is on watching a menagerie of degenerates and people in way over their heads get lost in the shuffle of what we can refer to as a “gaggle-fuck” of bad decisions and worse combatants. It also stars an assortment of fantastic character actors doing some of the weirdest work in their careers.

The foundational elements of Smokin’ Aces are seemingly simple: various assassins and hitmen are hired to take out an FBI informant named Buddy “Aces” Israel. Buddy, played by Jeremy Piven, is a washed up, coked out wannabe gangster with an affinity for playing cards and who never reached the top of the food chain. Piven, fully aware of the type of movie he’s in, cuts loose and gives Buddy a lack of true blue motivations. Unfortunately that means leaving his entourage, mainly Common, out in the cold. Naturally, a hit is put on Buddy Israel and the hunt is on.

There’s no one group of particular criminals we can find ourselves rooting for but our main throughline is from the perspective of FBI agents Messner and Carruthers (Ryan Reynolds and Ray Liotta, respectively). Carnahan’s various motley crews are manifestations of his unrestrained kinetic force as we hop back and forth between disconnected groups of cops and crooks. Their game of cat-and-mouse between themselves and Buddy “Aces” Israel sets in motion a destructive force that would go right at home with a Suicide Squad film.

The most excessively manic energy comes full force through Carnahan’s creation of the Tremor Brothers. They’re a trio of unhinged, psychopathic Neo-Nazis with zero regard for any semblance of human decency. Chris Pine is the most notable of the few as the Cheetos-chewing Darwin Tremor, who gets to spout some faux-philosophical jargon in the climax that shows his true colors. Spoiler: he’s a gargantuan monster of a human being whose only interest is in himself.

In the film’s biggest surprise, Alicia Keys appears as one half of a dynamic duo sent to kidnap Buddy Israel before the other hitmen take him out. I’m not sure why Alicia Keys hasn’t starred in more action movies since her appearance here but someone should fix this immediately. She has the charisma of a seasoned action star and casual swagger that is not easy to emulate. In a film erupting with anarchic tendencies, Keys steals the show.

It’s no easy task to balance a variety of tones with even more characters than an Avengers movie. Carnahan doesn’t allow the film to function gracefully but it explodes with gusto and confidence nonetheless. Smokin’ Aces would be suitable as a stylistic exercise but the climax solidifies it as a rousing experience with meatier purpose. The moving pieces are messy and incomprehensible at times and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to needing several viewings to fully understand the intertwining scale of the hitmen, law enforcement, and mob plots.

Somehow Smokin’ Aces ends up as a prime example of a film that has its cake and manages to eat it ,too. It’s scattershot by design. By the finale, Smokin’ Aces—while not as meditative as something like The Grey—reveals its deeper layers.

A final sequence set to Clint Mansell’s orchestra of “Dead Reckoning” solidifies the weight of the events that transpired. To some, the action will serve as schlocky escapism, but for others may prove too bleak. Countless participants, willing or otherwise, are caught in the film’s final crossfire and “Victory at any cost” seems to be the prevailing credo. The characters we’ve followed are left to pick up the pieces. In Smokin’ Aces Carnahan has delivered a film unlike any other—a morally dubious action thriller with concrete intent.

Featured Image: Universal Pictures