'Lucky Number Slevin'

MoviesEntertainmentJudaismStanley TucciMorgan FreemanBen Kingsley

It's easy to see why an eclectic cast of A-listers was drawn to Jason Smilovic's "Lucky Number Slevin." The dialogue crackles with wit and a general love of language. For around 45 minutes, "Slevin" soars along purely on the obvious pleasure that the actors are taking with the words. It's only as it progresses that it becomes evident that "Slevin" is all cleverness and no substance. The plot, the characters and the locations are all so tied up in trying to be catchy that nothing dramatic ever develops and despite superficial twists and turns, it's never even vaguely surprising.

Josh Hartnett is Slevin, an unlucky man with the misfortune to find himself in the middle of a building war between The Boss (Morgan Freeman) and The Rabbi (Ben Kingsley), two mobsters who don't care who Slevin is as long as he can help then with their dueling desire for revenge. Complicating things for Slevin are the spunky coroner next door (Lucy Liu), a nosy detective (Stanley Tucci) and a famous assassin known only as Goodkat (Bruce Willis).

Zipping forward and backward in time, "Slevin" has a light step as it establishes the heightened reality in which these two crimelords operate. Director Paul McGuigan has a background in British thrillers and the film mixes a steely coldness with and appealingly daffy sense of production design and costuming. McGuigan stages the violence scenes with a rough edge, but makes sure that every beating, a punchline is there to take out the sting. Plus, while the wisecracking Slevin gets laughs, audiences probably won't begrudge the gangsters for wanting to beat the snot out of him.

But McGuigan runs out of energy at the same time that Smilovic's script runs out of ideas. The movie's big reveal (a reverse most viewers will see coming) takes place two-thirds of the way through, leaving an excessive amount of time for recapping and flashback montages to explain how it all makes sense. It's not inventive enough to be worthwhile and it doesn't do justice to the set-up.

This is a rare role that makes perfect use of Hartnett's flat delivery and often expressionless dark eyes. Slevin is supposed to be a bit of a riddle and Hartnett doesn't give any clues. He also has a charming dynamic with Liu. Although she seems miscast, Liu turns out to be flirty and fun in the kind of part that usually would have gone to Hollywood's bubbly blond flavor-of-the-week. Willis and Freeman are on autopilot, because as much as these old pros relish the back-and-forth of the script, they're playing types more than characters. Kingsley apparently loved playing Fagin so much in the recent "Oliver Twist" that he amps it up a level, taking his pseudo-Jewish affectations to near-offensive levels and taking his New York accent all over the map.

By positioning "Slevin" as the heir to "Pulp Fiction" and "The Usual Suspects," the marketers are setting audiences up for disappointment. It's more like one of the knockoffs that followed those successful movies, glib enough to be diverting and nothing more.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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