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Aces Wild 

Every once in a while, I feel that I have to remind viewers not to be late for a movie. Let me hammer that thought home concerning this one. If you miss even the first frame of Smokin' Aces, the terribly titled and totally whacked-out story of hitmen and cops getting involved with Las Vegas entertainment folk, you're going to be very confused.

But that's not to say that even if you sit there and watch all 109 minutes of this thing, you're gonna understand it. The fast-paced film and purposely scattered script is a mind-boggling piece of work, with plot components flying from every corner. And though it (sort of) comes together in its final moments, there's a good chance that you will not be discussing it with anything approaching understanding on the ride home. But it's fun all the same.

Here's some of the plot: The FBI is on stakeout duty is Vegas, because a bunch of old-school Sicilians are up to something. The agents believe it's a hit on Buddy "Aces" Israel (Jeremy Piven), a once-popular Vegas magician. (In a flashback, he's introduced to his audience by Wayne Newton!) Buddy has tasted the fast life, gotten hooked up with some ne'er-do-wells, wants to become a wiseguy and is brought up through the ranks by the marvelously named Primo Sparazza (Joseph Rushkin). But, as happens in gangster movies, things go wrong between Primo and Buddy, and Buddy is ready to spill all kinds of beans to the feds. Hence, a possible hit.

All of this, by the way, takes place in the first six minutes. Get ready to be assaulted by the rest of Smokin' Aces.

It's a tough and gritty movie that's both very funny and very violent. There are multitudes of different players -- cops, criminals, hookers, bailbondsmen, hitmen, hitwomen -- all offering up different viewpoints of what they're going to do, mostly either to protect Buddy or to take him out.

Ah, Buddy. Holed up in his Vegas suite, wondering if he'll make it through the night, he displays an enormous desire for beautiful women (when he's through with one batch, he makes them leave so another can be brought in), and shows that maybe he should have stuck with magic (he's never far from a fresh deck of cards, casually plucking aces from it). Too bad he's taken a liking to snorting some fine white powder. He spends most of the film coke-addled and burnt out.

Writer-director Joe Carnahan (Narc) best nasty-but-fun idea here is to send an almost uncountable number of hired killers after Buddy. The body count pile-up -- some people are killed off-camera, some are mowed down right on-screen -- is made even more crazy via the film's flashy editing style, which has the story careening maniacally between scenes. Yet as complicated as everything gets, Carnahan directs it with a sure hand, and a few nods toward films such as Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Guy Ritchie's duet of Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.

In what's probably an homage to John Woo and Quentin Tarantino (or maybe just a ploy to get in their shoot-'em-up club), there's a completely insane blazing guns sequence between two main characters in an elevator. My guess is that both of those directors would be proud of Carnahan's contribution to the genre.

Through no fault of the filmmakers, in this post-Michael Richards incident world, one of the black hitwomen makes generous use of the "N" word. It's uncomfortable for a little while, but given the circumstances the story occurs in, it's never really out of place.

In fact, this film is so wild, nothing is out of place. And it's chock-full of excellent performances. Among them, besides Piven, are Ryan Reynolds as an FBI agent, Taraji P. Henson as the aforementioned hitwoman, Alicia Keyes (has Bob Dylan figured out where she is yet?) as her partner in crime, and Jason Bateman -- cold sores everywhere -- as, hmmm, I haven't yet figured out what he was doing there.

Near the end, Smokin' Aces offers an explanation of its events. Problem is, the explanation is more complicated than anything that's come before. My guess is that it's all about loyalty, betrayal and working for the greater good. One thing's for sure: the explanation takes you right back to the beginning. Don't miss that first frame.

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