Thursday, April 27, 2006

Lucky Number Slevin: Hedge Your Bets

Lucky Number Slevin marks the reunion between Wicker Park collaborators Josh Hartnett and director Paul McGuigan. Their first effort was a mildly diverting, watered-down remake of a French psychological thriller, L’Appartement. Their second work together is a considerable step-up in prestige.The first element of notice is the massive upgrade in star talent. Gone is Matthew Lillard, replaced by the likes of Morgan Freeman, Ben Kingsley, Lucy Liu, Stanley Tucci and Bruce Willis. The production scale is higher, the violence is more gruesome and the plot is more intricately woven. Unfortunately all these enrichments in talent and resources do not correlate to an increase in quality.

The film’s complex plotting revolves around a case of mistaken identity within the enacting of a Kansas City Shuffle. Bruce Willis plays Mr. Goodkat, a widely-revered contract killer who explains early on that a Kansas City Shuffle refers to a coup in which you make them look left while they should be looking right. So immediately we know the film is going to have a surprise ending. Given the opening credits in which the identity of a killer is carefully disguised, it’s not difficult to guess at what that’s going to be. Josh Hartnett plays Slevin Kelevra, the misidentified man stuck in the midst of a major crime war. Through Goodkat’s careful administration, he finds himself at the mercy of both The Boss (Morgan Freeman) and The Rabbi (Ben Kingsley). The two are in charge of New York City’s most intimidating crime syndicates. There was a time that they worked together but now they inhabit dueling perches in their offices; neither one ever leaving their building for fear of the other’s wrath.

There is also Lucy Liu as Lindsey, the next door neighbor to Nick Fisher, the man Slevin has been mistaken for. Her main purposes in the movie are to be attracted to Slevin and to recap events in a rapid-fire delivery for comedic effect – granted she is good at both. The always entertaining Stanley Tucci is also on hand as a detective trying to monitor the actions between the gangsters. He is solid as usual but his character is the same prickly, self-involved narcissist that he so often plays. Bruce Willis suffers from a similar fate, as he is resting on the soft-spoken, steely-eyed presence he perfected in the 90s. After a string of interesting roles, this is his blandest role in years. Josh Hartnett is serviceable in the lead role but orchestrates his own downfall through his pitch-perfect performance in the romantic scenes with Lucy Liu as opposed to his inconsistency as the sarcastic wise-ass when interacting with the gangsters. Morgan Freeman and Ben Kingsley give performances worthy of their esteemed reputations – there is an absolutely sublime scene where the two talk face-to-face and are given the opportunity to flesh out their characters more than anyone else in the film.

To say that McGuigan directs with visual flair would be to complement his distracting over direction. While there is one scene that is inventive and expedient in the way it constructs a three-way conversation that manipulates past and present, most of the style is just distracting. The filmmakers feel so proud of their clearly CGI-enhanced-shot panning from The Boss’ window to The Rabbi’s window that they not only plaster it in every trailer and TV spot, they have the audacity to play it twice in the movie. There is also a maddening scene in which the camera continually moves back and forth behind a wall during a conversation between Lindsey and Slevin. McGuigan does manage to incorporate two nice visual motifs: numbers and Slevin getting punched, the latter being more the most satisfying of the two.

For those who are fans of the genre, there is a lot to enjoy in its adherence to the post-Pulp Fiction crime film. There is the obligatory monologue about a comic book character (delivered by poor Morgan Freeman), a Hitchcock reference, excessively bloody kill shots, stylish camera work and even a peppy song over the end credits. However, non-fans will tire from the unlikable characters and the script’s desires to continually reverse the viewers’ expectations at the expense of character consistency. Most offensive is the way the film takes pride in being unpleasant and sadistic, only to cop out with a sappy conclusion at an airport, almost identical to the ending that plagued Wicker Park.

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