Perhaps it was just bad timing. After all, seeing purported crime thriller Lucky Number Slevin so soon after viewing Brick was bound to have an effect on me. It would be hard for anyone to go from a masterful homage and reinvention of the genre to a dumbed-down, insipid, lifeless, straightforward, uninvolving, check-your-brain-at-the-door movie starring Josh Hartnett as a man caught up in a case of mistaken identity who finds himself in the middle of a turf war between aging gangsters. Maybe I’ve just been spoiled for a while on films like this, and I should take some time off or get a lobotomy or do something that would help me readjust my perceptions. But to chalk it up to those circumstances would be to give Lucky Number Slevin a free pass that it definitely doesn’t deserve; stepping back to view the movie as a whole, and to judge it on its own merits, I find it to be every bad thing I mentioned and more. With all the cinematic style of a test pattern, Lucky Number Slevin is a two-hour barrage of cutesy dialogue, aimless plot, and boring characters, a film devoid of humor or depth. It has absolutely no reason to exist, yet it does.
The story begins with Mr. Goodkat (Bruce Willis) sitting in a wheelchair at an airport, telling a stranger a fairly lengthy story that, as expositions go, is far too long. The point of the story is that in 1979, a man lost a big bet on a horse race and was summarily executed when he couldn’t pay up, along with his wife and kid. The guy at the airport seems impressed with Goodkat’s tale, and after misdirecting the guy’s attention, Goodkat snaps his neck and swipes the corpse. It’s both alienating and depressing, signaling that we’ll be spending the movie with the Willis from The Whole Nine Yards, and not his more talented but equally more elusive doppelganger, the Willis from The Sixth Sense. Cut to Slevin (Hartnett) with a towel wrapped around his waist, examining his busted nose in a bathroom mirror. He answers a knock at the door to find Lindsey (Lucy Liu), who lives across the hall and needs sugar. Slevin doesn’t live at the apartment, but he’s friends with the guy who does, a man named Fisher. Lindsey begins to promptly throw herself at Slevin much faster than is probably advisable, given their random meeting and the fact that it’s probably not a good idea to trust every stranger you meet in New York. She leaves, but Slevin is soon visited by a pair of goons (including a bizarrely miscast Mykelti Williamson), who take Slevin to see the Boss (Morgan Freeman). The Boss lives a life of paranoia and fear, ensconced in a penthouse across the street from the Rabbi (Ben Kingsley), a rival crime boss with a matching high-rose fortress. The Rabbi just had the Boss’ son killed, so the Boss wants to return the kindness, and he wants Slevin to do the deed. Fisher owes the Boss some money, and this is how the Boss decides to collect. He thinks Slevin is Fisher, and after a few futile attempts to disabuse him of the notion, Slevin just goes with it.
Wait a minute, you’re probably saying. Why would Slevin just go along with all this? Wouldn’t he want to do everything possible to persuade the Boss that he wasn’t Fisher? Wouldn’t he want to maybe try and help the boss track Fisher down so they could sort this mess out? Why would Slevin agree to accept an assassination contract when he’s just a victim of circumstance? If these or any other questions occurred to you, congratulations, you are of average intelligence and therefore smarter than screenwriter Jason Smilovic and director Paul McGuigan. There are only two real reasons Slevin would play along, and given that overlong flashback with which Goodkat kicked off this whole mess, you can probably figure out the “twist” with little difficulty. Smilovic’s pseudo-snappy patter and predictable plotting leave no room for surprises, the kind of enjoyable twists and layers that can draw a viewer into the world of a crime thriller. The Rabbi and Slevin even discuss North by Northwest, reflecting on how Cary Grant’s character was mistaken for a spy. Apparently, Smilovic thinks that paying lip service to a great film is enough to elevate his own work to a more tolerable level, but the Wachowski brothers could tell him that tricks like that rarely work. McGuigan keeps everything stumbling at the same meandering pace, creating a thriller remarkably devoid of tension or excitement. It’s like listening to an 8th-grader read Cliffs Notes for Hamlet: You’re pretty sure there’s a decent story in there somewhere, but it’s impossible to tell.
So Slevin gets roped into killing the Rabbi’s son for the Boss, shortly before the Rabbi brings in Slevin, again assuming he’s Fisher, and demands to be repaid a large sum of money. Fisher, it seems, was in the pockets of every major crime boss in the city. Slevin again protests about the case of mistaken identity, but the Rabbi doesn’t care, so Slevin just gives up and assumes the debt. Again, it’s a pretty obvious tell to Slevin’s real motives, but McGuigan’s too lazy to care. He brings the same clumsy directorial hand he displayed in Wicker Park, another film with Hartnett and questionable plot turns.
Hartnett has charm to spare, and his laid-back Slevin would be the driving magnetic force in a better movie. And Liu is surprisingly likable as Lindsay, who falls for Slevin and is determined to help him find out what happened to Fisher. Freeman and Kingsley aren’t bad, but they’re phoning it in. These are two of the best actors of their generation, and it’s disappointing that they’re letting their careers slide. But the biggest disappointment about Lucky Number Slevin is how good it could have been had things gone differently: The story has all the beginnings of a convoluted, dark, engaging thriller, not to mention a few requisite lies and scenes that turn out to have never actually happened. Unfortunately, the film wants so badly to be a slightly sunnier Guy Ritchie tale that it winds up being too light for its own good, turned inconsequential by its falsely casual air. There’s the rub.
Daniel Carlson is the L.A. critic for Pajiba and a copy editor at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his weblog, Slowly Going Bald.Lucky Number Slevin / Daniel Carlson
Film Reviews | May 2, 2006 | Comments ()