Crime may not pay, but it almost always looks cool. At least in the movies. Back when James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson were turning the exploits of real-life gangsters into sanitized action tales, crime seemed like the business to be in for hot dames and bullet-riddled action. In the '70s, the Godfather films forever solidified the image of the well-suited Italian Mafioso. In the '80s, Scarface provided generations of rap stars a lifestyle to which they could aspire. It wasn't until the '90s, though, that crime achieved the ultimate in cinematic cool, thanks to the films of Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction). British director Guy Ritchie (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch) briefly added some over-the-top energy to the mixture, but today's crime films are all more or less permanently indebted to Tarantino's nerdy-cool style, blackly comic wit and sheer pop cultural obsession.
In 2000, Scottish director Paul McGuigan cranked out a solid crime saga in the Tarantino/Ritchie mode. While Gangster No. 1 didn't exactly signal the arrival of a totally original new voice, it at least ushered one more obviously talented filmmaker into the fold (as opposed to the legions of untalented hacks who have tried to ape Tarantino's bravado over the years). Recently, McGuigan debuted his surprisingly solid series “Thief” on FX. Close on the heels of that weekly crime drama comes McGuigan's latest genre film, the comic, corkscrew-shaped crime thriller Lucky Number Slevin.
Josh Hartnett (Pearl Harbor, Sin City) tops the vast cast as Slevin, an unlucky fellow who has just arrived at his buddy's apartment in New York City. Almost immediately, he is mistaken for the missing apartment owner, beaten up and hauled before an imposing NYC crime kingpin known as The Boss (Morgan Freeman, thankfully not playing the wise old narrator). The Boss believes that our boy owes him a large sum of money, a debt that will be canceled if he will only agree to help assassinate the son of a rival gangster known as The Rabbi (Ben Kingsley, who--like the Star Trek films--now seems to alternate between good movies and bad movies, making this follow-up to BloodRayne one of the “good” ones).
Slevin, unable to convince anyone of his correct identity, soon finds himself trapped in the escalating war between The Boss and The Rabbi. Throw in an obsessed cop (Stanley Tucci) and a mysterious hitman (Bruce Willis), and you've got the makings for a day pretty much on par with Jack Bauer's “24” worst. Slightly ameliorating these crummy circumstances are the flirty attentions of the girl next door (Lucy Liu, who--as it turns out--is astonishingly cute when not asked to play a total bitch). She puts on her best Nancy Drew wig in an attempt to help Slevin sort out this crazed case of mistaken identity.
The script, by first-time screenwriter Jason Smilovic, is quite sharp. Strict attention should be paid during the opening scenes in order to work out the film's complex, multi-charactered story--which stops just short of being too hard to follow. The tone fluctuates wildly between violent and comically absurd, and the dialogue features some of the finest one-liners in many a moon. Inevitably but a bit regretfully, the humorous tone fades out toward the end, making way for the avalanche of shocking revelations to come.
Rest assured, you'll be getting your money's worth in terms of twists and turns. As it happens, a case of mistaken identity is the least of our concerns. Whether or not the film's plot mechanics would actually make sense in the real world (doubtful) is irrelevant. Slevin takes us on a ride, shakes us up, and dumps us off at the end, giddy and out of breath. Despite all the breakneck surprises, Lucky Number Slevin ends up being slightly predictable. If you figured out The Sixth Sense in the first 10 minutes, you'll probably do the same here--a revelation that, fortunately, doesn't suck too much fun out of the proceedings.
McGuigan directs stylishly without completely overdosing his audience in faux-hip posturing. (Domino, I'm looking at you!) The slick Scotsman provides glossy cinematography and triphammer editing and throws around almost enough hideous Op Art wallpaper to qualify this as a Pedro Almodóvar movie. Like other pop crime films, Lucky Number Slevin is a highly self-conscious affair. At times, it gets lost in its own cinematic cleverness. It's cool, and it knows it's cool, which renders it slightly less than cool. But it's quite funny, has a script that obviously took more than a single afternoon to dream up and rewards viewers with a topnotch cast. Lucky us.
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