It really bugs me when characters in a film make a reference to an actual, better film. In "Lucky Number Slevin", two characters talk about Hitchcock's "North by Northwest", indicating the great film is similar to the exploits of the "real people" we are watching. Really, the only similarity is the case of mistaken identity.
That gripe aside, "Lucky Number Slevin" is not a bad film, but it promises so much more.
Slevin (Josh Hartnett) arrives in Toronto... er, New York to visit his friend Nick. A few minutes after he arrives, he is mugged, losing his wallet. Nick is nowhere to be found, but Slevin makes himself at home in his apartment, taking a shower, shaving. Lindsey (Lucy Liu), the next door neighbor, bursts in, looking for Nick. They flirt, she leaves, she comes back in, they flirt some more. After she leaves, there is another knock on the door and the Boss' (Morgan Freeman) henchmen arrive to take Slevin to a meeting at the Boss' heavily guarded penthouse. The Boss wants Nick to pay back $96,000 he owes. He believes Slevin is Nick. Therefore, Slevin owes the Boss $96,000. Moments after returning to the apartment, another knock on the door. The Rabbi's (Ben Kinglsey) henchmen take Slevin to a meeting at the Rabbi's heavily guarded penthouse, directly across the street from the Boss'. Nick owes the Rabbi money as well. Lurking in the background, Mr. Goodkat (Bruce Willis), a professional assassin, may play a role in the game we watch unfold.
"Slevin" has all of the characteristics of a memorable, amusing Noir-ish, wink-wink nudge-nudge game of cat and mouse. But it doesn't deliver on them.
The reference to Toronto? This is yet another film set in New York, yet filmed in Canada.
The cast is interesting but I don't get Josh Hartnett. He is easily one of the most boring actors working in Hollywood today. Why does he still get offered movie roles? He doesn't bring anything to the screen and frequently appears to be simply reading his lines from memory. Is it his looks? He isn't good looking enough to sustain his career as long as he has. But in this film, his lack of personality aids the character. We can wholeheartedly believe he would be mistaken for someone else because he has no personality of his own. But after this plot point comes and goes, we are then left with the actor's boring personality.
Morgan Freeman and Ben Kingsley immediately lift the film with their portrayal of the warring gangsters. The characters are interesting and multi-dimensional. But these actors bring such gravitas to their roles the film is robbed of any humor it strives to obtain. There are hints at humor throughout, but they don't lead anywhere. Imagine an Elmore Leonard novel turned into a film. That is what "Slevin" wants to be. The Boss and the Rabbi are clearly inspired by Leonard's works, but both are so serious, so intent on their journey, we never laugh at them. Remember Don Cheadle in "Out of Sight"? That's what this film needs.
Bruce Willis fares the best. As the assassin Mr. Goodkat, he is always calm and collected, adding the right level of danger throughout. He also keeps us guessing, as we aren't sure what role he plays in the game. Is he the mastermind or a pawn?
Lucy Liu's Lindsey initially appears to be an annoying, precocious woman. Why is she taking such an interest in Slevin? She seems to be a tremendous flirt. And she is, but is there more to her character? In the first few moments of meeting her character, I wasn't sure I would be able to stand it. But as her relationship with Slevin continues, she takes more of a backseat. The end of the film provides an inexplicably sweet moment for their relationship.
Writer Jason Smilovic and director Paul McGuigan ("Wicker Park", "Gangster #1") have fashioned an intricate, involving game. After an extended prologue, told in flashback by one of the characters, the story takes off through many twists and turns. The film wants to be clever, and it is, to an extent. Unfortunately, the prologue gives away the one big twist revealed in the end of the film. The filmmakers seem to realize this because after this revelation, we see another, referencing back to the prologue. This secret is so deeply buried, like insurance to make sure everyone watching is at least a little surprised.
The film also wants to be funny. And it isn't. As good as Freeman, Kingsley, and Willis are, they are playing it straight, trying to be a scary and menacing. Hartnett walks through much of the film with a bemused expression on his face. He doesn't seem to believe what is going on, or appear to be very threatened by it, despite being constantly punched in the face. Hartnett's Slevin is a character we should be laughing with. Yet, we don't. Nothing he experiences is funny and Hartnett isn't a good enough actor to create the laughs.
The filmmaker's seem to have the most fun with the production design. From the prologue, set in the 70s, to the present day, many of the interiors are filled with intricate patterns. Wallpaper is filled with 70s-era design, the Boss' penthouse floor is covered with an intricate tile design reminiscent of the 80s. Both of these eras are represented throughout the film, causing the line between the eras to blur. It is an interesting look; effective in helping to make the con seem all the more unusual.
All in all, if the film had played it straight, it would have been more successful. But because it announces that we should find some of the goings-on humorous, we are looking for the humor as well. When it doesn't happen, the film loses some of its flash. "Lucky Number Slevin" is an adequate diversion, but it could've been so much more. Now you have to decide if you want to pay $7 or $10 for "adequate".