Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Lucky Number Slevin

Lucky Number Slevin (2006) has all the ingredients for a great movie. Morgan Freeman and Ben Kingsley play a pair of warring crime bosses, and in the middle of their conflict, a naive innocent becomes entangled after a case of mistaken identity. Meanwhile, Bruce Willis plays an enigmatic hitman with a hidden agenda working both sides. Unfortunately, the film acts too clever and hip for its own good. Rather than get involved with the story, we're distracted by snide jokes and dialogue and narrative gimmicks.

Slevin (Josh Hartnett) is staying at his friend's Nick's place when a couple of thugs mistake him for Nick and drag him to their boss, The Boss (Freeman). It seems Nick owes the Boss quite a bit of money, and Slevin can't convince him he's not Nick. The Boss offers to erase the debt if Slevin kills the son of his rival, The Rabbi (Kingsley). Meanwhile, Nick also owes the Rabbi money, and in another case of mistaken identity, he gives Slevin 48 hours to pay up. Slevin gets help from Nick's neighbor Lindsey (Lucy Liu), and all the while, a mysterious hitman known as Mr. Goodkat (Willis) is manipulating the crime bosses to use Slevin.

As evidenced by the summary above, the plot is complex but satisfying, for a while. Drawing a similar premise to Hitchcock's North By Northwest (in fact, that film is referenced in the dialogue) and The Third Man, Lucky Number Slevin is the story of a naive innocent in over his head because of the actions of an unseen, so-called friend. Slevin spends much of the first half of the movie being dragged from dangerous person to another, and each time that happens, something worse is piled on. The way it's one damn thing after another is amusingly grim and darkly humorous.

There are also nice tweaks in the characters. Instead of mad-dog gangsters, Kingsley and Freeman play their roles more like mannered businessmen. Freeman, in particular, does not stray too far outside his usual range, so it is disconcerting to see an actor known for authoritative, kindly mentors play a disquieting criminal who calmly discusses murder and revenge. Lucy Liu, as the romantic interest, we learn, is a coroner and only too eager to join Slevin along on his efforts, a nice change from the usual, disbelieving female who usually just tags along. The relationship between Slevin and Lindsey feels like it could work in a quirky romantic comedy and actually is rather charming.

The film opens with a great scene featuring Willis that unfortunately undercuts everything else that happens. Sitting in a wheelchair at a nearly vacant bus station, Mr. Goodkat tells a nameless stranger this story about a man who owed bad people money and ended getting his whole family slaughtered. Then, Mr. Goodkat tells him about something called the Kansas City Shuffle before demonstrating in shocking fashion why he brought the wheelchair. This sequence sets up a revelation mid-way through the film that might have been unexpected had we not seen the flashback at the start. As a result, it's hard to care whether Slevin will able to get out of his predicament because we're just waiting for the big secret to come out. Once the secret's out, the rest of the movie is more flashbacks and exposition to tie everything together. This also serves to tell us that some of the scenes and actions we saw never happened, so the film is not playing fair.

Not helping the dialogue. It's not terrible, but the movie is smug in how clever it thinks it is. Maybe if it were snappier, I would have found the lines funnier, but some of the exchanges go on and on. We get it; they're exchanging banter.

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