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‘Smokin’ Aces’ more like a flamed-out joker

Jeremy Piven and an all-star cast are totalally wasted in this slasher-crime drama that plays like Tarantino Lite.

Beware of crime thrillers that front-load a lot of exposition through voiceovers. If too many characters and plot elements are jammed together in the opening minutes, it’s often a sign of desperation.

Perhaps the information is not as vital or as complex as the filmmakers intended, or they’ve failed to weave it smoothly into dialogue and action, or they’re trying to make a short story long by padding it out.

All of the above appears to apply to writer-director Joe Carnahan’s “Smokin’ Aces,” which carries the extra burden of taking itself terribly seriously once the key plot details are out in the open. A bloodbath and a freak show for much of its length, it suddenly decides to deliver a final-reel message about the futility of violence.

The story revolves around a couple of FBI agents (Ray Liotta, Ryan Reynolds) who are assigned to the Lake Tahoe retreat of a decadent comedian-magician, Buddy “Aces” Israel (Jeremy Piven), who has agreed to testify against the Nevada mob. The feds’ main target, Primo Sparazza (Joseph Ruskin), has taken out a $1 million contract on Israel, whose sudden vulnerability entices all sorts of mayhem-making bounty hunters — including chainsaw-wielding neo-Nazis.

Ben Affleck plays a bail bondsman who gets in over his head, and there are small, less-than-challenging roles for Andy Garcia (as an FBI negotiator), Peter Berg (as Affleck’s pal), singer Alicia Keys (as a comic-relief lesbian) and Jason Bateman, who makes something almost lyrical out of a soused lawyer’s extended rants.

A lot of talent is on display here, and most of it is wasted. Piven has a few funny moments when his character is performing, sharing a casino act with Wayne Newton and advising him to retire. But fans of “Entourage” will wonder why Piven has been given so little to do here; an episode in which coked-up Israel weeps at his mirror image is more awkward than revealing.

Are we supposed to feel something for this guy, who is presented, in vivid detail, as the sleazebag of the century? For that matter, do the gruesome deaths of any of these characters register as anything but special-effects triumphs?

Carnahan’s 1998 directing debut, “Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane,” was one of the snarkier, more entertaining crime comedies that followed the release of “Pulp Fiction.” His second film, “Narc” (2002), which had a better-known cast (Liotta, Jason Patric), grabbed more attention.

Carnahan’s most distinctive touch in “Smokin’ Aces” is to emphasize the startling intimacy of much of the violence. A killer who has just taken down Affleck’s character does a ventriloquist act with the dead man’s jaw. A hotel security guard becomes entwined in something like a lover’s embrace with his murderer.

The idea is as old as “Double Indemnity,” in which Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck said goodbye with a lethal embrace, but it comes off as one of the fresher touches here. The rest is mostly Tarantino Lite.