Josh Hartnett (Sin City) indulges in a snappy tongue-in-cheek puzzle of a thriller that’s akin to eating 10 flavors of ice cream. A fast twitch opening sequence torn from the pages of Tarantino’s playbook introduces Bruce Willis as a cunning and calm assassin with the gift of gab.
Before you can say, “Kansas City shuffle,” Mr. Goodkat (Willis) has laid out a flashback murder-filled tale of familial tragedy brought on by a father’s misguided attempt to bet on a mob-fixed horse race. The fact that Mr. Goodkat tells the story to his next victim before dispatching him in public hints at the misdirection that 28-year-old screenwriter Jason Smilovic uses to lure the audience deeper into the folds of his angular story.
Happy-go-lucky Slevin (Hartnett) gets mouthy with a mugger upon his arrival in Manhattan and suffers a broken nose for his troubles. Undeterred Slevin is precariously cavalier when he’s abducted from his friend Nick’s New York apartment by mob thugs who escort the man they think is Nick to meet the Boss (Morgan Freeman).
Some of Slevin’s insouciant demeanor might be attributed to his lusty meeting with Nick’s immodest wannabe detective neighbor Lindsey (Lucy Liu). The Boss informs the identity-challenged Slevin that he has three days to either pony up $96,000 or bump off his mob rival Schlomo a.k.a. the Rabbi (Ben Kingsley) who visibly lives in a penthouse directly across the street from the Boss in his posh New York digs.
Things enter the realm of screwball comedy when Slevin is taken by Schlomo’s thugs to meet with the Rabbi who also demands that the man he thinks is Nick perform a murderous duty. A cutesy romance grows between Slevin and Lindsey under the slapstick surveillance of police detective Brikowski (Stanley Tucci).
Tucci, who has made a career out of just such roles, pokes fun at his typecasting by keeping his character’s intentionality feather light. His performance is so transparent that it barely registers. Lucy Liu, on the other hand, practically dances through her performance with a sharp presence that becomes central to the story when her occupation as a coroner attracts some excessively negative attention from the smarmy Mr. Goodkat.
Slevin conducts a private killing spree that necessarily exposes the cryptic identities of his victims and his own personal motivations while enlisting the assistance of Mr. Goodkat. The set-piece murders are splashy stylistic affairs rendered with deliberate visual style under Scottish director Paul McGuigan.
McGuigan worked wonders with the gritty British gangland movie Gangster Number 1 (2000) but seemed to lose his way on his next two genre disasters The Reckoning and Wicker Park. It’s too soon to predict if McGuigan will channel his evident energy, eye for detail, and facility with actors into a meaningful career but he clearly has what it takes.
Lucky Number Slevin is slushy as a piece of post-Tarantino candy noir, but it draws congruity from the polished skills of its highly compatible cast. It’s a movie star showcase with plenty of spunky one-liners and plot-twists that make you feel a little bit smarter and luckier than you really are. The movie loses some of its overblown cleverness and humor in a drawn-out third act that delivers an anti-climatic ending thanks to one cliche too many. Young audiences will never even notice. MTW