I’ve spent two days trying to figure out why I don’t like this cheerfully amoral cinematic con job as much as I feel I should. I don’t mind its lack of much in the way of a moral center, though making the solution hinge on a singularly cold-blooded act is not the best way to generate audience sympathy. While I find it the height of tackiness that Sir Ben Kingsley has now opted to allow his title to be used as part of his billing, I don’t blame that on the film.
I do question the wisdom of a screenplay that evokes the name of Cary Grant in a movie starring Josh Hartnett. The last person you want to remind people of when they’re watching Hartnett is Cary Grant. Any comparison is bound to be unfortunate for Mr. Hartnett.
However, I am inclined to think that the problem does lie with Jason Smilovic’s (TV’s Karen Sisco) screenplay, which is almost as clever as it thinks it is, but wears its cleverness on its sleeve. The Cary Grant North by Northwest reference is part and parcel of the script’s glib post-modern approach where everyone is sufficiently pop-culture savvy to relate the events of the film to other films. But here it’s never more than superficially clever — conjuring up nothing so much as an episode of Remington Steele — and serves to telegraph to the viewer too much of what’s really going on.
And why weren’t the filmmakers sufficiently savvy themselves to realize (as I notice Roger Ebert did, too) that rival crimes bosses Morgan Freeman and Ben Kingsley facing off from penthouse sanctuaries across a New York street would dredge up images of Al Jolson and Cab Calloway dueting on “I Love to Sing-a” from The Singing Kid? Actually, if they’d sung — and tossed in an “Oh, no, not this again” remark from Sir Ben during what I’ll call a House of Sand and Fog moment — I might have liked Lucky Number Slevin a lot more than I did.
Certainly, it wouldn’t have hurt the film’s believability very much, since few movies are as relentless as this one about keeping the fact in front of you at all times that you’re watching a movie.
Smilovic’s impossibly mannered dialogue is entertaining in its own right, but it’s like nothing ever uttered by human beings in real life. The aim was apparently to imbue the film with the kind of digressive verbal intercourse that Tarantino uses, at times successfully, in his films to create an illusion of reality (while at the same time celebrating human quirkiness). The results are quirky enough, but the illusion of reality is completely absent.
All this said, there is a fair degree of fun to be had with Lucky Number Slevin, mostly based on the performances, which are certainly not wanting in terms of liveliness. Even Hartnett, who is usually too bland for his own (or anyone else’s) good, is amusingly game here. After all, the man plays a large chunk of the film wearing nothing but an indelicately low bath towel.
Playing the improbably named Slevin, he’s mistaken for his friend, Nick (Sam Jaegar), by rival gangland kingpins, the Boss (Freeman) and the Rabbi (Kingsley), both of whom have scores to settle with Nick. The Boss is owed $96,000 by Nick, but will write this off if Slevin will kill the Rabbi’s son. The Rabbi, on the other hand, is owed only about a third of this, but is adamant about being paid. Into this mix is thrown Lindsey (Lucy Liu), a grimly ditsy (this woman performs autopsies?) neighbor of Nick’s who quickly falls for Slevin and approaches the peculiar events of the story like some sexed-up Nancy Drew hot on a case. There’s also a world-class hit man, Mr. Goodkat (Bruce Willis), and a suspicious cop, Brikowski (Stanley Tucci), flitting in and out — not to mention various lower-echelon gangsters.
There’s certainly no want of characters or incident, and there’s an undeniably agreeable loopiness in the sheer conceited improbability of the story. In the end, it’s just a con of a movie about an elaborate and ultimately deadly con game. On that level, it’s enjoyable enough, but its major distinction is more its too calculated oddness than anything else. Rated R for strong violence, sexulity and language.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke