Lucky Number Slevin

Colorful, self-assured and more than a bit smarmy, Lucky Number Slevin would chafe at being called a film. Written in backwards-plotted fashion by Jason Smilovic (television’s short-lived Karen Sisco) and directed by Paul McGuigan (Gangster No. 1, Wicker Park), this cinematic shell game has the jazzy panache of Pulp Fiction, the confidence of, well, Confidence and a series of twist endings nipped from The Usual Suspects. It’s a movie all the way. To some this will be a compliment, to others a dis. Either way, you’ll think yourself dizzy trying to keep up.

Lucky Number Slevin opens with a man who calls himself Smith (Bruce Willis) happening upon a stranger in an airport and telling him an involved, winding story about a fixed horserace from many years ago. From there, the bodies start piling up at quite a clip, before one really knows what’s going on. Finally we’re introduced to Slevin (Josh Hartnett), a 20-something guy who’s come to New York City to visit his friend Nick. After crashing in his pal’s apartment and happening upon his neighbor, cute coroner Lindsey (Lucy Liu), Slevin gets mistaken for Nick and sucked into a plot involving joint gambling debts to two feuding, equally paranoid and security-conscious crime lords known as the Boss (Morgan Freeman) and the Rabbi (Ben Kingsley).

In order to erase his debt to the Boss, Slevin is charged with bumping off Yitzchok (Michael Rubenfeld), the gay son of the Rabbi. The Rabbi, meanwhile, has his own demands of Slevin. It soon becomes apparent, meanwhile, that “Smith” is actually Mr. Goodkat, a famously discreet assassin, and he has strange and murky plans involving Slevin, who must in turn start thinking on his feet in an effort to turn the tables on those that would take advantage of him.

McGuigan also directed Hartnett in Wicker Park, another movie on one level about the convergence of identity and opportunity, and he made use there of all sorts of slurry, obfuscating devices. Here, though, he has material whose ingrained archness better matches some of the things he’s trying to do. Jazzy interstitials make short work of many a character and scene, and the film’s opening preface from Smith spells out its diversionary gambit. The set design is all flirty ’60s décor, full of pop and lines of distinction. What’s left, though incredibly arch, is energetic and charismatic.

Hartnett gets to play askance and off-kilter, something he does well, and that many of his blander roles don’t afford him the opportunity to do. The meet-cute banter with Liu is fun if tonally dubious, harkening back to the days of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. At one point Lindsey compliments Slevin by saying he reminds her of James Bond; this later entails a discussion of whether or not this really was a compliment, based on which Bond she was talking about. If Willis, in full-on stoic mode, is merely a placeholder here, you don’t fault him too much given the size and function of his part in this rangy ensemble. As slick and masturbatory as it is freewheeling and fun, Lucky Number Slevin is a crime caper predicated on head feints. If that bothers you, don’t play its slots. (MGM/Weinstein Company, R, 110 mins.)


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