A film review by Craig J. Koban

LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN jj
½ 

2006, R, 109 mins.

Slevin: Josh Hartnett / Lindsey: Lucy Liu / Shlomo: Ben Kingsley / Mr. Goodkat: Bruce Willis / The Boss: Morgan Freeman / Brikowski: Stanley Tucci / Elvis: Dorian Missick / Yitzchok: Michael Rubenfeld / Blondie: Janet Lane

Directed by Paul McGuigan / Written by Jason Smilovic

LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN sure feels like a facsimile of the best films of Quentin Tarantino that was done with a photo copy machine with far too little ink in the toner cartridge. 

It comes across as incredibly Tarantinoian (if there is such a word; okay, I just invented it) in terms of its stylistic impulses and drives.  It has the dark and comically macabre narrative that spirals and coils in and out of itself and is told largely in disjointed order.  It has a relatively who’s who of deplorable, degenerate lowlifes that only a modern audience can love to hate.  It has a cheerfully insidious love of on-screen brutality and generates many creepy chuckles from us during those moments.  Finally, LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN also has that obligatory Tarantinoian dialogue that is flashy, exuberant, and ripe with his trademark colloquial, pop culture references.

I guess my main misgiving with the film is in its own level of arrogance.  LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN is a good film in that it's slick, well directed and acted and is – for most of its running time – fairly involving.  The director, Paul McGuigan, has a good sense of detail and shoots the film with an eye-catchy aesthetic look that is not too overly showy.  The script, by Jason Smilovic, has many likeable and distinct personalities that easily generates our interest.  The plot itself has some twists that are genuinely surprising as well. 

Unfortunately, both McGuigan and Smilovic are not talented enough to make the film feel anything but highly derivative.  I got such a strange sense of déjà vu watching LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN.  I have been exposed to countless pulp-inspired films like this before.  They have been many obvious Tarantino rip-offs over the past decade; some were very good (like 2 DAYS IN THE VALLEY, LAYER CAKE, and most recently RUNNING SCARED) and others that were unquestionably awful (like the cosmically overrated BOONDOCK SAINTS).   LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN falls sort of in the middle; it does not have much more to elaborate on for this type of material.

The film is undeniably clever, but perhaps the most unsavory aspect about the overall enterprise is the way I sensed that both McGuigan and Smilovic think that their story is a lot smarter than it actually is.  As a matter of fact, I honestly think that both of them believe that they are smarter than the average audience member.  During the film’s final act, which involves a few too many twists and reveals for its own good, it’s easy to see where they are a bit blindsided to see how telegraphed their film is.  Any lay filmgoer with a decent attention span will be able to see where the story is heading and how a certain character fits into everything right from the very beginning.  By the time true motives and identities are revealed to us, it feels as if the makers are proudly throwing off the blanket that was over our collective eyes for nearly two hours and show us how well they managed to trick us.  Yet, LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN is far too predictable and anti-climatic for this type of visceral reaction.  If you know where a film is going from point A and the filmmakers think that you have no idea where it's going, then there are obviously some problems with the overall piece.

The dialogue of the film is also - paradoxically - lively, colorful, and free-spirited as well as perhaps a bit too trite and self-consciously witty.  When Vincent and Jules from PULP FICTION discussed the concepts of fast food, foot massages, and the nature of Television pilots, their conversations felt unequivocally natural and nuanced.  They felt like actual conversations that two hitmen may have while on the way to a "job."  The characters in LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN also have a constant penchant to engage in smartass Tarantino-speak (what wanna-be hip and stylish film does not aspire to this now?)  The dialogue in the film often sings with nail-biting sarcasm and a rapid fire and assured delivery by most of its stars.  However, it lacks Tarantino’s flavour and veracity.  When his characters speak we feel that it helps to augment their personalities; it breathes with believability.  When the people in LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN speak it sure sounds catchy, but it feels more like an exercise in style.  Their mode of speech is more mannered and methodical.  I dunno…the more the characters spoke, the more it felt like the writer was worried more about sounding brainy and less about defining his characters.

Despite all of these criticisms, LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN is never a boring or mundane exercise in style over substance.  The plot sure breezes by with a fairly effortless pace and the overall story manages to generate our buy-in.  The film will have people making obvious comparisons to Tarantino’s work, but it also has some definitive echoes of Hitchcock (one moment in the film even goes as far as directly referencing NORTH BY NORTHWEST, which LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN seems to modernize).  Like some of the best works of Hitch, this film occupies the thematic levels of mistaken identity.  The difference here is that we are able to find discover the secrets behind the mistaken identity fairly early.  Hitchcock would have preyed on the sensibilities of his audiences meticulously until they truly could not discover the film’s secrets.  As a result, LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN plays like classic Hitchcock without much suspense.

The film stars Josh Hartnett as Slevin, a young man who seems to being on a particularly bad streak of luck.  You really do feel for the guy at the beginning.  The laundry list of emotional casualties he suffers is tough – he lost his job, caught his girlfriend having kinky sex with another man, and - by the time he makes it to the Big Apple - he is accosted and has his wallet taken.  I almost forgot to mention that he was punched hard enough in the nose during the mugging to break it.  To make matters even worse for the Slevin, he arrives at his friend Nick’s apartment to find that he is not home.  Slevin, having a bad day, decides to settle in and relax as much as possible until Nick finally arrives home.  Well, his R & R is short-lived when he discovers that Nick is missing and that a couple of mob thugs barge into his apartment and mistakes him for Nick.  He pleads with the two heavies, but they don’t like what they hear.  Obviously, he could clear matters, that is if his wallet was not taken earlier by the robber.  Needless to say, Slevin gets walloped on the nose again  and is taken to see the thugs’ boss.

He finally meets The Boss (played by Morgan Freeman) who also mistakes Slevin for Nick.  Not only that, but he tells Slevin that he owes him 92-large, which the desperate man does not have.  The Boss then makes him an offer he can’t refuse – kill “The Fairy,” the homosexual son of his rival crime boss “The Rabbi” (who is actually a rabbi) and all will be forgiven.  Why does The Boss want The Rabbi’s son dead?  Maybe because he thinks The Rabbi had his own son whacked.

The reluctant, but down-on-his luck, Slevin agrees to The Boss’s demands, but just when you thought that things could not get any worse for the troubled sap, another set of goons rough him up and send him to meet their boss, who is The Rabbi himself!  Actually, the trip to meet The Rabbi is not too far (his high-rise hideout is right next door to The Boss’, which allows them the opportunity to literally stare each other down from their respective windows).  The Rabbi (played very well by Sir Ben Kingsley) miraculously makes Slevin an alternate offer that only facilitates the need to make his life even more of a living hell than it is already. 

There are also some secondary story threads and characters that are thrown into the film’s mix.  We also meet Lindsey (played in a cute performance by Lucy Liu) who emerges as Slevin’s neighbor.  They seem to hit it off immediately, even if they don’t seem to agree on who was the definitive James Bond (I side with Slevin’s first answer of Mr. Roger Moore; sorry, all you Connery-aholics).  We also are introduced to a tough, streetwise detective named Brikowski (played by Stanley Tucci) who seems to have a particular interest in Slevin as well.  Finally, there is the oddly enigmatic character of Mr. Goodkat (Bruce Willis) who emerges as a sort of Hitman-With-No-Name killer.  We see very little of his character and he says very little.  He peaks in here and there in the story when it is convenient, I guess.  However, he has an important link to a story from the 1970’s that involves a fixed horse race and something he refers to as a “Kansas City Shuffle.”

LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN does have some distinct merits.  The production values have a sort of eye-popping, 1970’s Retro-vibe that is fun to look at.  Many of the individual performances are good as well.  I liked Hartnett as the lead and he seems to easily find a home in this story of vile gangsters and criminal vermin (especially after having played one himself briefly in last year’s SIN CITY).  I especially liked Kingsley who has such a sneering, slimily charm playing The Rabbi as a man of high conviction and quiet, inner rage.  Bruce Willis, on the other hand, does very little other than to look like a badass mo-fo with a pair of guns (it’s a performance he has done in his sleep before) and the usually magnificent Freeman may be the film’s only other weak spot in terms of performances.  He’s certainly always enjoyable to watch, but here he looks to be just going through the motions.  All in all, he does what he can with a character that is not altogether as flashy and vivacious as The Rabbi.  In the annals of great Morgan Freeman performances, he's not great here, but merely adequate.

LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN – throughout it’s questionable traits – does manage to find a nice blend between absurdist, black comedy and emotional drama.  The undeniably twisted characters are able to forge a few moments of hilarity among all of the chaos and confusion.  There is a funny, recurring sight-gag showing how Slevin always seems to be on the receiving end of a punch to the stomach when he meet’s a new hooligan.  Slevin himself is a fairly interesting character.  He seems like a typical straight arrow that is unfortunately caught up in a web of confusion and deceit.  However, he’s not perfect by any means and is flawed to a great degree.  Book ended to the main story is a fairly tragic tale of a man who’s family is viciously murdered by mobmen after a horserace bet gone horribly wrong.  This story evolves rather inevitably into the main story of Slevin in ways, as stated, that are more obvious than they should have been.

Unfortunately, the sum of a few of the great parts of LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN does not make for an equally great whole.  When it comes right down to it, the film has only a morsel of originality and vitality among its largely recycled elements.  It has such strong incantations of the work of Tarantino that it feels a bit too hackneyed for its own good.   It certainly has all of the ingredients of that filmmaker’s recipe for success, the only problem is that the chefs behind making all of them work fail to create something that is agreeably digestible.  LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN is an edgy, oftentimes funny, and moderately entertaining PULP FICTION inspired tale of scum and villainy, but it eventually is not much more than a disposable knockoff in the Tarantinoian genre.  This jigsaw puzzle of a story of mistaken identity sure wishes it could rise to the level of effervescent cult-appeal.  Yet, when all is said and done, LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN simply is not as crafty, cagey, and smart as the makers think their film is.  A film that tries as hard as this one does to be original should not come across as so recycled.

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