'Smokin' Aces': Low Roller, By Kurt Loder

Joe Carnahan's frantic mob yarn gets lost in its own shuffle. Also: 'Seraphim Falls' and 'Blood and Chocolate.'

In "Smokin' Aces," the talented director Joe Carnahan aims for the transgressive humor and breathtaking pop violence of a Quentin Tarantino movie, but winds up awash in the rote frenzies of a Guy Ritchie flick. There are way too many characters to keep track of, they're too cartoonish to care about, and the plot is madly baroque in a most wearisome way. Coming from the director of the tight, gritty 2002 cop thriller "Narc," the picture is a lamentable mess.

The story is about, let's see, a Las Vegas illusionist named Buddy "Aces" Israel (sweaty, frenetic Jeremy Piven), a card-fanning casino headliner with mob connections who made the mistake of branching out into criminal endeavors of his own, incurred the displeasure of his Mafia godfather, Primo Sperazza (Joseph Ruskin), and now finds himself forced to sing to the feds in order to save his own skin. Sperazza wants him capped. In fact, he wants, not Buddy's head, but his heart — the actual organ. (This pays off, if we can call it that, at the end of the film, in a head-hurtingly ludicrous way.) When Sperazza puts a $1 million bounty on the turncoat magician, word quickly spreads through the freelance-assassin underground. In no time a motley tribe of top killers begins converging on Lake Tahoe, where the FBI is babysitting Buddy in a hotel penthouse, along with his aide-de-camp, Sir Ivy (the rapper Common, in an elegant, possibly star-making performance) and his dimwit bodyguard, Hugo (Joel Edgerton). Buddy, wired on coke and pickled in liquor, has turned this swank hideout into a total guy-pit, littered with bottles and strewn with wiped-out, used-up hookers. ("These flowers have wilted," he says, surveying the bleary beauties. "Call the florist.")

Among the assassins racing into town are a lesbian hit team (Alicia Keys, game but unlikely, and trash-talking Taraji P. Henson, of "Hustle & Flow"); a gang of vicious neo-Nazi knuckleheads (Chris Pine, Kevin Durand and Maury Sterling); a "master of disguise" called Lazlo Soot (Tommy Flanagan); and an Italian interloper named Pasquale (Nestor Carbonell), who's "noted for his legendary torture techniques." (Pasquale is so hardcore that he gnawed off his own fingertips in prison in order to frustrate future fingerprinting.) There are also a couple of defrocked vice cops, a rogue surgeon called the Swede, and a local bail bondsman (Ben Affleck, in a '70s-porn-star mustache) who's been hired by a sleazy lawyer (gleefully yucky Jason Bateman) to collar Buddy before the feds get him. Since the feds already have him, though, Affleck's character doesn't have a lot to do, and he's understandably dispatched very early on.

When practically all of these characters start pouring into the hotel, and Buddy's FBI guards (Ray Liotta, Ryan Reynolds and Andy Garcia, with a highly variable Southern accent) close ranks to fend them off, the movie sags into confusion — and grows even more bewildering when some of the killers start disguising themselves as hotel employees to make their way up to Buddy's penthouse redoubt. Bullets and bodies fly through the air, blood flows with arterial abandon, and apart from one comic-relief rooftop chat scene, the action is virtually nonstop. But the action is so monotonously repetitive — all-shooting, all-dying, all the time — that you want it to stop, at least occasionally, just to catch your breath, or check your watch.

Carnahan, who also wrote the script, knows how to tailor a tangy line. (Henchman to partied-out hooker: "You went from Beyoncé to Bigfoot in less than six hours.") But the machine-gun obscenities that were so exhilarating to hear in early Tarentino pictures have long since lost their novelty, and thus their effect. The relentless verbal assault and the incoherent slaughterama mow you down along with most of the characters. When at the end Ryan Reynolds' blood-caked agent is suddenly wracked by moral torment, you wonder what movie he's wandered in from. Then you wonder where it's playing.

"Seraphim Falls": Thud

This curious Western may set a new world record for out-of-the-blue inanity, which comes winging in toward the end of the picture. Before then — for the first hour and a half or so — we watch a former Confederate soldier named Carver (Liam Neeson) tracking a former Union officer named Gideon (Pierce Brosnan) up through the snowy mountains and down into the broiling high desert of New Mexico. Three years earlier, at a place called Seraphim Falls, Gideon and his troops burned down Carver's house, with his wife and infant child inside. (In the Bible, seraphim are angels; "falls" is what we see Carver's wife do, angelic baby in her arms, when the smoke and flames inside the burning house overcome her. In a similar leaden way, the name Gideon is derived from a Hebrew word meaning "great destroyer.")

Carver has hired four skeezy bounty hunters to assist him in tracking Gideon down. They track and track. Gideon runs and runs, stumbling down mountainsides, tumbling into a raging whitewater river, plummeting over a waterfall. The script is spare, and there are considerable stretches in which Brosnan has little to do but gasp noisily for breath. Occasionally, his character pauses or doubles back to pick off one of Carver's lowlife gunmen in some inventively nasty way. Finally only Carver and Gideon are left, and it's at this point — despite the star substance the two likeable leads bring to their roles — that the movie goes stumbling, tumbling and plummeting into absurdity.

Hoofing it through the parched and sweltering desert now, Gideon comes upon a watering hole. We can see that there's no sign of life for about a hundred miles in any direction. Nevertheless, as Gideon staggers up to fill his empty canteen, an Indian in a top hat (Wes Studi) steps out from behind a rock. Gideon is as surprised as we are, more so when he notices a horse that's suddenly appeared nearby. Gideon could use a horse. Whose is it, he wonders. "It's yours," says the Indian. Then he says, obscurely, "That which is yours will always return. That which you take will always be taken from you."

There are a couple of things that can be said about this encounter. One is that the Indian's name (we learn only from the end credits) is Charon. Mythology buffs may get a chuckle out of this — Charon was the boatman who ferried the souls of the dead over the River Styx. But then the mythology buffs will almost certainly be stumped, as I was, as to what this might mean within the context of the movie. (Are Gideon and Carver actually both dead? The movie itself is definitely on life-support at this point.) In addition, fans of an almost-great 1999 comedy called "Mystery Men" will recall that in it, Wes Studi played the Sphinx, a loopy guru who wanders around tossing off impenetrable aphorisms that leave the rest of the characters scratching their heads in bafflement. Now, Studi appears to be playing that very same character once again, only this time in a top hat, at a watering hole a million miles from nowhere. This is very funny, although I suspect that the director, David Von Ancken, and his co-screenwriter, Abby Everett Jaques, were unaware at the time of why that might be.

It gets better. When next we see Gideon, he's wandering through the desert again, this time with the horse — and again, there's nothing in sight for leagues around but flat baking crusty sand. He hears a sound, though, and when he turns around, we see that a horse-drawn coach has suddenly materialized behind him. A sign on the side says it belongs to a Madame Louise, and that she's in the business of selling "patent remedies." Sitting at the reins, with an inscrutable smirk, is Anjelica Huston. This is funny because ... well, just because. Madame Louise has a proposition for Gideon. If he'll give her his horse, she'll give him a bottle of her snake oil and one bullet for his pistol, which we (and she, too, somehow) are aware is empty. Gideon knows that the vengeful Carver isn't far behind, so he accepts this deal — although he tells Louise to keep the medicine. "You men," she says, with a world-weary cluck, "always choosin' a gun over a remedy."

I can't go on — even though the final scene of the movie, which soon follows, tops all of this for sheer, please-shoot-me preposterousness. I won't go into that, and I don't suggest you go into this.

"Blood and Chocolate": Wolf Bane

Along with being a real bargain for low-budget filmmakers, the Romanian capital of Bucharest also turns out to be the only city on earth run by werewolves. It's an unusual setting for "Blood and Chocolate," author Annette Curtis Klause's 1997 teen-wolf romance novel (which is set in a suburban Maryland high school). But the German director Katja von Garnier makes a stylish go of it, feasting on the city's cobbly streets, moody churches and general Magyar charm. True, the interiors mostly look like bombed-out tailpipe factories, but that's probably the low-budget thing kicking in.

The story revolves around Vivian (Agnes Bruckner), a pretty young werewolf from Colorado who's not happy about it — the werewolf part, that is. Following the murder of her parents by anti-werewolf activists, she has relocated to her family's ancestral home, and now works in a Bucharest chocolate shop. (The chocolate theme suggested by the film's title pretty much starts and ends right there.) She spends her nights reluctantly hanging out with the local lycanthropes, whose leader, a brooding, leather-clad character named Gabriel (Olivier Martinez), thinks Vivian is the long-promised embodiment of some ancient wolfish prophecy, and aims to make her his mate. ("Bride" seems the wrong word for what he has in mind.)

Then Vivian meets a young Englishman named Aidan (Hugh Dancy), an artist who's in town working on a graphic novel — about werewolves. Why is he doing this in Bucharest? Well, he tells Vivian, when he was 17, he punched out his abusive father, and since "there's an assault warrant out for me," he's been on the lam internationally ever since. Vivian buys this story, and we worry for her.

You can see where this tale is going, and it goes there, as I say, rather stylishly. The movie has considerable problems, though. It's not just the rather basic visual effects (the werewolf transformations are effected in an odd flare of light, and the snarling wolves themselves might as well have "CGI" engraved on their fangs). There's also the wobbly tone: Wolfish doings in the moonlit woods outside of town are lumpily interspersed with frolicsome young-love montages and a few over-burnished images that seem more appropriate to a fashion shoot than a feral passion. And since this is a pan-European production, cast with Americans, Brits, Germans, Hungarians, Frenchmen and Romanians, some giggle-triggering line readings were probably inevitable. ("You know our tradeeshun," says Gabriel, who also says, "No one effer reaches the reever.") The writers, however, have to take full credit for bonehead guff like, "If you cared about me, you would've left me before we ever met."

The movie's heaviest burden, unfortunately, is its star. The undeniably lovely Agnes Bruckner's acting skills — as directed here, at least — range from a sullen stare to a slightly less-sullen stare with a mild smile going on down below. She may one day become an expressive actress, but that day does not seem close at hand.

All of these defects, which aren't unusual in movies of modest budget, could be forgiven if "Blood and Chocolate" were actually scary. But it isn't; not even a little bit. Werewolf devotees may feel that it bites.

Check out everything we've got on "Smokin' Aces", "Seraphim Falls" and "Blood and Chocolate".

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