Lucky Number Slevin (United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Lucky Number Slevin is a fascinating case study of what might result if Quentin Tarantino directed a script written for Alfred Hitchcock. From a screenwriting perspective, this is pure suspense, with twists that would appeal to The Master, including his favorite: mistaken identity. (In fact, North by Northwest is explicitly referenced.) From a directorial standpoint, Paul McGuigan was evidently inspired by Tarantino, and some of the Pulp Fiction filmmaker's favorite actors - Bruce Willis, Robert Foerster, Lucy Liu - make appearances. Non-Tarantino actors like Morgan Freeman and Sir Ben Kingsley, are at home. And lead Josh Hartnett, recalling his appearance in Sin City, is also in synch with the proceedings. All-in-all, like many of Hitchcock's middling films, this one is flawed but enjoyable. And it's clever enough that I didn't guess all of the surprises.

Slevin (Josh Hartnett) is in the middle of a bad luck streak that sounds like it's out of a Country/Western song: he lost his job, caught his girlfriend cheating, and, shortly after arriving in New York City to visit his buddy, Nick, was mugged. Nick is missing, so Slevin makes himself at home in his apartment. This proves to be a mistake, because two rival crime lords - The Boss (Morgan Freeman) and The Rabbi (Sir Ben Kingsley) - are owed money by Nick. For Slevin, who is mistaken for his deadbeat friend, this is an unfortunate development, but not as unfortunate as The Boss' mandate for paying off the debt. Added to the mix are the dangerous assassin Mr. Gookat (Bruce Willis), who loves playing "The Kansas City Shuffle;" Nick's inquisitive, James Bond-loving neighbor, Lindsey (Lucy Liu), who hits it off immediately with Slevin; and a hard-nosed detective, Brikowski (Stanley Tucci), who wants to get to the bottom of everything.

Lucky Number Slevin is populated by a group of dislikable individuals, although each possesses the virtue of being interesting. Even the irrepressible hero, Slevin, has flaws - chief of which is that he doesn't know when to keep his mouth shut. His penchant for wisecracking at inappropriate times gets him punched in the nose and the stomach. Lindsey seems to be a genuinely nice, energetic woman, but - as we all know - female characters in thrillers aren't always what they seem to be. So would it be a twist for her be exactly what she seems to be? Morgan Freeman and Sir Ben Kingsley (don't forget the "Sir") bring a touch of class to their villainous roles. The Boss even plays chess (and is quite good at it). Bruce Willis, in shape and acting his age after a couple of movies (Sin City and 16 Blocks) in which he played "departure" roles, is enigmatic.

The plot breezes along, pausing occasionally for fast-paced flashbacks that fill us in on background details. There are plenty of curves in the story's trajectory, but McGuinan avoids zipping along so fast that he loses us. He also makes sure that we get to like and sympathize with the young hero so we feel for him as his impossible (and, some might argue, impossibly contrived) situation escalates. This is where McGuinan proves to have been a quick study of Hitchcock - he understands that viewers will swallow more when they like and relate to a protagonist.

On a certain level, Lucky Number Slevin reminds me of the tragically ignored Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Both films feature clever screenplays with smart characters, and go about their business with good humor. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is more openly satirical than Lucky Number Slevin, but neither film plays it completely straight. Some of what occurs in Lucky Number Slevin is done with a wink and a nod, although McGuinan (á là Tarantino) doesn't skimp on the gore. While none of the violence is graphic enough to churn stomachs, it's definitely R-rated.

As twisty thrillers of the genre go, this one is more than passable. Overanalyzation can spoil the fun - this is the kind of movie with which it's best to go with the flow. I adore movies that can confound my expectations, and this one succeeded. Kudos to Lucky Number Slevin on that score. Warts and all, this deserves nothing less than a solid recommendation.

Lucky Number Slevin (United States, 2006)

Director: Paul McGuigan
Cast: Josh Hartnett, Stanley Tucci, Ben Kingsley, Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, Lucy Liu
Screenplay: Jason Smilovic
Cinematography: Peter Sova
Music: Joshua Ralph
U.S. Distributor: The Weinstein Company
Run Time: 1:50
U.S. Release Date: 2006-04-07
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1