(Movie review by John C. Ford) “Lucky Number Slevin” is like a house of cards with baroque design — an exercise in style that, while dazzling in its details, leaves little to savor other than the effort necessary to make such an artificial construction. The labyrinthine plot of this sometimes comic caper kicks into gear when a man named Slevin (Josh Hartnett) gets mistaken for a buddy who has skipped out on major debts he owes to two rival criminal barons played with relish by Morgan Freeman and Sir Ben Kingsley. Freeman’s character in particular puts the screws to Slevin, leaving him with only one way out of his fix: by murdering his rival’s son.
As an actor, Hartnett often wears a placid expression not unlike that of yesterday’s teen heartthrob, Keanu Reeves. Hartnett’s eyes, however, exude a level of intelligence far enough above that projected by Reeves for us to respect him. Which is to say, he acts amusingly befuddled quite well, and that is what his part in “Lucky Number Slevin” requires. That and getting punched in the nose a lot.
So, while the amusingly befuddled Slevin wraps his head around things, he finds himself under yet another, but more welcome assault, this one levied by the chipper presence of Lindsey (Lucy Liu), a neighbor of the friend for whom Slevin has been mistaken. Liu shows a new side of herself in her invigorating, showy performance as the perky mortician eager to play gumshoe. Her character adds a healthy shot of fun to the complicated goings-on, and in doing so the actress nearly upstages the Mt. McKinley of acting talent assembled for this project.
In addition to the major players, “Lucky Number Slevin” features the exquisite Stanley Tucci and Robert Forrester in bit roles. The last of the main characters is Goodkat (Hartnett’s “Sin City” co-star Bruce Willis), a man we know is dangerous if only by the tightly coiled energy coming from Willis. For the most part, Goodkat lurks in the corners of the action while we, the audience, try to figure out how he is going to fit into things.
At its most basic, “Lucky Number Slevin” is a con story. We know this because Goodkat tells us so in the opening minutes of the film. He does this by way of a highly improbable monologue delivered to a stranger, in which he provides the historic facts giving rise to his elaborate scheme. While the filmmakers did not superimpose the words “forced exposition” on the screen during this sequence, they might as well have. Nonetheless, the combined talents of director Paul Guigan and Willis make the whole thing entertaining enough.
A third, unseen hand at work on “Lucky Number Slevin” belongs to screenwriter Jason Smilovic, who, it would appear, has been heavily influenced by the works of Quentin Tarantino. Studios wasted untold yards of celluloid in the 1990s trying to clone Tarantino’s cinematic confections composed of gore, quirky characters, and riffs on obscure topics. Smilovic’s script features all of these elements, and as far as homage to Tarantino goes, “Lucky Number Slevin” is more explicit than most. It even contains an allusion to a famous, scatological monologue in “Pulp Fiction” about a wristwatch.
Perhaps inspired by all of this, the casting director fills the playlist with Tarantino veterans like Willis (“Pulp Fiction”), Liu (“Kill Bill: Vol. 1”), and Robert Forrester (“Jackie Brown”). And it is easy to see why these people were attracted to the project. The script brims with intelligence and clever twists, and easily sets the film apart from the wasteland of Tarantino knockoffs.
It may, however, have too much of a good thing. Smilovic’s hyper-kinetic imaginings feel more than a little cutesy at times, such as the decision to make Kingsley’s gangster a Hasidic Jew for no necessary reason, and then to further pound the originality of this concept into our heads by way of goons wearing earlocks and pointless shots of Torah scrolls.
The script also suffers from a certain unevenness. One minute, Hartnett and Liu are trading lightning banter in the style of a 1940s screwball comedy, and the next minute someone is getting shot in the brain. Director Paul Guigan (“Gangster No. 1”) shows enough talent to make “Slevin” work, but his direction also suffers from a “look at me” quality. As a result, the only overarching tone of “Slevin Number Seven” that comes unmistakably through is of a production thoroughly in love with itself.
The final minutes of the movie ends with an attempt to wrap its disparate elements up in a bow, and to add the faintest dash of emotional resonance to the self-consciously wacky preceding hour and a half. At that point, it is just a little too late, because we are already halfway through with our popcorn and have long ago resigned ourselves to simply enjoying this fun thrill ride while it lasts and forgetting about it fifteen minutes later.
Paul McGuigan (director) / Jason Smilovic (screenplay)
CAST: Josh Hartnett …. Slevin
Stanley Tucci …. Brikowski
Ben Kingsley …. The Rabbi
Bruce Willis …. Mr. Goodkat
Morgan Freeman …. The Boss
Lucy Liu …. Lindsey
Kevin Chamberlin …. Marty