-By Daniel Eagan

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Perking up what is usually the graveyard month for Hollywood releases, Smokin' Aces is an unapologetically low-rent account of hit men after the million-dollar bounty on a mob-connected stand-up comedian. Grungy, garish and completely gratuitous, it's also extremely entertaining, at least until the script develops a conscience. Like last year's Crank, it will delight its target audience even as highbrow critics tsk-tsk about coarsened standards.

Expanding on his cold-blooded agent in "Entourage," Jeremy Piven plumbs new depths as Buddy "Aces" Israel, a magician-turned-comic whose spectacularly inept forays into crime are analyzed in the opening scenes by a dozen or so feds, lawyers and killers. The film jumps from one to another--from Ben Affleck's blue-collar bail bondsman to Chris Pine's neo-Nazi meth addict to Andy Garcia'a straitlaced FBI deputy director--filling in just why Israel has a contract on his life, and just who is after him. Everyone has a plan, but every plan falls apart at the worst possible moment.

Israel is "hiding out" in the penthouse suite of a Lake Tahoe casino, surrounded by drugged-out prostitutes and barely literate bodyguards. As he rats out everyone in his life and sinks into coke-enhanced despair, he becomes a grimly compelling character. Piven is the standout in the cast, but against all odds, Ray Liotta is restrained and sympathetic as a by-the-book FBI agent. In her feature debut, Grammy-winning pop star Alicia Keys is confident and effective, while Jason Bateman makes the most of his bit as a self-loathing lawyer.

Writer and director Joe Carnahan drops the labored pessimism of his last film, Narc, returning to the manic, propulsive style that marked his 1998 feature debut, Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane. He juggles storylines effortlessly, sketching in locations and characters just as elegantly as he strips away the exposition that usually ruins the genre.

Oddly, Carnahan does a better job setting up the many storylines than staging the climactic penthouse mayhem. Smokin' Aces is also dragged down by an abrupt turn to moralizing near the end. Instead of letting viewers enjoy the film as a guilty pleasure, Carnahan suddenly wants them to take it seriously, like sugar-free candy or low-fat ice cream. Few will be fooled. Smokin' Aces is too hyper, too splattery, and too much fun to be anything but junk food.

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