Dir: Joe Carnahan. US-UK-Fr. 2006. 109mins
The body count stacks up like gambling chips in a high-stakes poker game in Smokin' Aces, a gleefully bloody, wickedly outrageous crime thriller set mostly in a Lake Tahoe casino hotel. Directed with Vegas-like flash by Joe Carnahan, the film is a giddy triumph of style over substance whose running disregard for plausibility, occasional uneven pace and gruelling, albeit over-the-top violence, may make it a hard sell for a general audiences.

Nonetheless a high-profile ensemble cast, including genre veterans like Ray Liotta, new talent like Alicia Keys and Jeremy Piven (star of TV's Entourage), and established stars like Ben Affleck (whose surprisingly brief appearance earns him deceptively high billing) will probably ensure an improvement on the $12.7m taken by Carnahan's last film Narc. The film's early January release (12th in the UK, 26th in the US), traditionally a quiet time for action films, should help.

Demonstrating the talent for action set-pieces that Carnahan revealed in Narc, Smokin' Aces owes less to that gritty police drama than to the flamboyant, blood-soaked, wisecracking gangster films of Tarantino, whose influence can be felt in Carnahan's debut Blood, Guts, Bullets And Octane. Lacking Tarantino's brand recognition and his formal inventiveness, Smokin' Aces will struggle for Kill Bill-style returns (Vol 1 made $70m in the US) although its plot revolving around an assorted bunch of deranged killers plotting to dispatch a lone criminal reverses the premise of that two-hander, in which one assassin sets after a motley crew of undesirables.

At the very least the film will outperform the 2005 Vegas-set Revolver (which also features Liotta), although there are occasional stretches in Smokin' Aces that manage to be as tortuously plotted as Guy Ritchie's movie. A big-budget embodiment of the Blood, Guts, Bullets And Octane credo of Carnahan's first film, Smokin' Aces is perhaps too visceral and egdy a project to achieve wide theatrical success, but expect healthy returns, and growing cult status, for this crime thriller on DVD among genre fans.

Smokin' Aces is a seemingly convoluted tale revolving around a senior cosa nostra figure, and sometime magician, Buddy 'Aces' Israel who has agreed to turn state evidence to the Feds. In the film's bewilderingly dense first half hour or so, we're introduced to Jeremy Piven's Aces, holed up in his penthouse hotel suite, and to an array of oddball hitmen and women involved in various plot to assassinate him. Mixing flashbacks with split-screens, voiceovers from different characters with on-screen titles as the many people with a stake in Ace's future schemes and double-cross one another, this extended expository sequences threatens to bombard us with too much information.

Aside from a reasonably surprising last-minute development the film eventually settles down into a more or less straightforward cop movie, with Ryan Reynolds and Ray Liotta's FBI men Messner and Carruthers the good guys intent on preventing the five set of assassins sent to dispatch Aces.

But the point is less about the detail of the plot as the exuberance with which Carnahan tells it. The film delivers ably here, with some solid, frequently breathtaking action scenes. The accomplished orchestration of stunt work and lethal hardware - a particularly effective shootout uses CGI to reveal the inside workings of a sniper's headphones, and then follows the bullet she fires on command into the window of a neighbouring building - makes one realise why Carnahan was in the running to direct the last Mission: Impossible film. But then the unruly jet-black humour that runs throughout also suggests the nature of the alleged 'creative differences' with Tom Cruise that were credited as a cause behind his departure from that film.

Examples of this off-kilter sensibility abound, notably in the loving excesses with which Carnahan's assassins practice their trade. Particularly memorable are the Tremor brothers, a trio of chainsaw-brandishing killers who have a habit of arriving on scene in a hail of machine-gunfire to a blast of death metal on the soundtrack. Their stand-off outside of Ace's hotel room is the film's finest set-piece: a noisy, comically grotesque kill zone conducted in a red mist of punctured arteries, flame throwers and Tommy-guns that shows Carnahan on rousing Grand Guignol form.

With an early gag consisting of Ace's profanity-filled rant about a semen stain on his jacket, the humour remains adult and abrasive, although the dialogue is frequently as sharp as one of Ace's card tricks. Alicia Keys' bluntly delivered lecture about feminism to a hotel clerk (before she heads off to attempt to take out Ace) is typical of the droll character details scattered throughout Carnahan's screenplay.

The cast are uniformly good value. Ryan Reynolds is a compelling figure of relative decency in this company of killers and double-crossers. Jeremy Pivens' Aces, blurry-eyed from continual coke use, is convincing in his pitiful paranoia, and one of few real points of emotional engagement. Peter Berg also stands out, suitably dazed during the film's most surreal moment when he survives a shooting and seeks refuge with a bespectacled, karate-kicking prepubescent boy who acts as if he's strolled from a Harmony Korine movie.

Production design favours a low-key brand of Nevada glitz and the music is a cool and eclectic mix of 1960s soul, 1970s funk, hip hop and Motorhead.

Production companies/backers
Working Title Films
Scion Films
Relativity Media

US distribution
Universal pictures

International distribution
Universal Pictures/UIP/Paramount

Tim Bevan
Eric Fellner
Joe Carnahan

Executive producers
Robert Graf
Liza Chasin

Mauro Fiore

Production design
Martin Whist

Robert Frazen

Clint Mansell

Main cast
Jeremy Piven
Ray Liotta
Ryan Reynolds
Ben Affleck
Andy Garcia
Alicia Keys
Peter Berg
Taraji Henson
Chris Pine
Martin Henderson
Jason Bateman
Nestor Carbonell