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Lucky Number Slevin   B

MGM / The Weinstein Company

Year Released: 2006
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Paul McGuigan
Writer: Jason Smilovic
Cast: Josh Hartnett, Bruce Willis, Lucy Liu, Morgan Freeman, Sir Ben Kingsley, Michael Rubenfeld, Peter Outerbridge, Stanley Tucci.

Review by Rob Vaux

Of all the places Josh Hartnett's career could have gone, the mean streets of noir ranks among the least likely. Yet not only has he arrived -- with his scene-stealing cameo in Sin City, the upcoming Black Dahlia, and this weekend's Lucky Number Slevin -- but he actually finds himself thriving. His pretty-boy looks may feel a little too polished for the turf, but he compensates with a variety of darkly appropriate tics: the guileless smile of a chump, the predatory charm of a con man, and the glittering shark's eyes of a stone-cold killer. Slevin lets him hone his technique to perfection, playing a title character described by screenwriter Jason Smilovic as "just incredibly unlucky." His performance is particularly impressive because it comes amid a glut of far more prestigious actors: Bruce Willis (who fits noir like a tailored suit), Morgan Freeman, Stanley Tucci, and Ben Kingsley, as well as unbilled turns from the likes of Danny Aiello and Robert Forster. Add to it director Paul McGuigan's sharp, disorienting style -- a style that sings with hard-boiled beauty -- and you have the makings of a thriller for the ages.

Sadly, it doesn't entirely fulfill that potential. Smilovic's screenplay uses fits of genuine brilliance to stave off the fact that it's often too clever for its own good, substituting smugness for wit in periodic displays of self-absorbed twee. That said, it's still an engaging scenario, full of twists and turns that remain consistently enjoyable, if not entirely seductive. Slevin arrives in New York to stay with his friend Nick (Sam Jaeger), hoping to get over a recent breakup and a history of general misfortune that tags along behind him like a tin can tied to a dog's tail. The change of venue doesn't help, however. He heads to Nick's apartment, only to find his friend missing and a perky next-door neighbor (Lucy Liu, in full-bore Nancy Drew mode) suspecting foul play. It gets worse. A pair of thugs soon arrives at the door, mistake him for Nick, and throw him headlong into a simmering gang war between the crime lord known only as The Boss (Freeman) and his rival, The Rabbi (Kingsley). Nick owed both of them a great deal of money, despite the fact that they've never laid eyes on him, and now Slevin is being asked to pay the debt or suffer the consequences.

The ensuing complexities are standard for material like this, and encompass a corrupt cop (Tucci) and an icy hit man (Willis), as well as a slew of colorful supporting characters. (My favorite is Howard Jerome's hulking, silent, and thoroughly Hassidic mob goon.) Smilovic's script gives them all the right amount of attention, while ensuring that the plot they inhabit is both intelligent and modestly watertight. Unfortunately, it also relies a bit too much on convenient coincidence, and cheats us with some cinematic dirty pool (in which we're given information that later turns out to be false). The dialogue walks a similar razor's edge, alternating between the genuinely clever and the brazenly phony. I'd love to have seen Bogart and Bacall take it around the block, but in the hands of contemporary performers, it suffers from bouts of grating self-indulgence.

If the script's flaws are distracting, however, its assets are still considerable, and McGuigan develops them with the same expert visual gymnastics that made his Gangster No. 1 so compelling. Production designer Francois Segin brings a puzzling yet unique look to the proceedings, dominated by patterns of strange wallpaper and the spartan elegance of the gang lords' respective lairs. The cast, of course, is top-notch, and though Hartnett still struggles with his hunk-of-the-month image, he's clearly hit upon a pattern that may elevate him into something more. Slevin makes an excellent noir protagonist, his cheerful loser status hiding dark roots beneath its surface. Plenty of actors could play the grim stuff, but few could blend it with the nice-guy exterior like Hartnett does. When the script moves from energetic black humor into harsher territory, the actor is right there with it, and his performance makes the tonal transitions smooth and effective.

That trick works for other parts of the production as well, from McGuigan's creative staging to Andrew Hulme's staccato edits. They serve to distract us from a few inconvenient problems of logic, circling the film like vultures but held off indefinitely by its better elements. Lesser thrillers ultimately succumb to such issues, as the pile of "Hey, wait a minute..." questions grows too large to excuse. Slevin has its share of them, and never really confronts them properly; instead, it disguises them with clever flashiness, hoping that its mechanics are slick enough to excuse the shakier parts. Luckily, the gamble pays off, leaving a solid (if less than perfect) crime thriller in its wake. Even smart material can benefit sometimes if you don't poke at it, which is precisely the case here. The more you let the niggling questions go, the better Lucky Number Slevin gets.

Review published 04.07.2006.

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