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Friday, Jan. 12, 2007
'Lucky Number Slevin'
A fatal attack of smoothness
By KAORI SHOJI
"Lucky Number Slevin" is slick and frosty: nice to look at but you don't want to get too close. Like that effortlessly attractive, straight-A guy in high school, "Lucky" seemingly has no bumps or flaws and ultimately no soul -- it impresses the hell out of you and leaves it at that. After the oohing and aahing, you're at a loss. Now what? The options seem pretty limited.
Directed by Paul McGuigan, who helmed the terribly stylish "Gangster Number One" (which showcased the best performance yet by Paul Bettany), "Lucky" is stylish, but too smooth and flawless; there's nothing in "Lucky" that you haven't seen or heard before, the stellar cast seems to have been chosen from a Hollywood instruction manual and the performances themselves are careful, excellent retreads. It's clever, but never intriguing, it's smart but, then again, a little boring. And the skill is so honed that you begin to wish someone would pick their nose or drop their pants to reveal nerdy boxers or something, ANYTHING -- a C-minus among all those A's.
Josh Hartnett stars as Slevin, a sweet, clueless type who arrives in Manhattan to stay in the apartment of his friend Nick. Turns out Nick is knee-deep in gambling debts to a gang boss conveniently called "The Boss" (Morgan Freeman). He's in a bitter feud with a rival boss called "The Rabbi" played by Ben Kingsley ("Why is he called the Rabbi?" "Because he is one!"). Slevin is mistaken for Nick, has his nose busted by some thugs and is hauled in front of the Boss, who informs him that the money owed (a neat little sum of $96,000) will be forgiven if Slevin succeeds in murdering the Rabbi's gay son. What's a cute, peaceful kind of guy like him to do, except say yes and be freed, if only temporarily? But Slevin doesn't really look worried. He falls for Lindsey (Lucy Liu) who lives across the hall and the pair soon start sleeping over in each other's apartments and sipping their morning coffee together. In the meantime, a snide cop called Brikowski (Stanley Tucci) is stalking Slevin for some reason, and a hard-ass assassin by the name of Mr. Goodkat (Bruce Willis) is doing business with both bosses. The puzzles and mysteries pile up at almost the same speed as the body count, but the seemingly defenseless Slevin remains unharmed, causing everyone to remark tirelessly at various intervals how he's "one lucky kid."
Nothing is what it seems in "Lucky," though none of it is surprising. Slevin isn't lucky so much as out for total revenge -- his relations with Goodkat go back to his childhood. The amiable, accommodating Lindsey turns out to be the city coroner, and Brikowski is not as crooked as he looks. An awful lot of witty banter and sizzling one-liners are accompanied by copious amounts of violence, one of which is a brilliant sequence of blood and brains going splat against a windshield. Inside the car, Brikowski says "Oh that is DISGUSTING," in the manner of someone who has just had some salad dressing spilled on his new Gucci shirt.
Such moments, though, only underscore the fact that The Great Tarantino has been-there, done-that all before. If anything gives "Lucky' its particular flavor, it's the production design by Francois Seguin. The two bosses (who were once friends) like to glare at each other from the balconies of identical penthouses on opposite sides of the street, and the interiors are weirdly symmetrical. Slevin and Lindsey also live in identical apartments that are distinguished by differing versions of over-the-top 1960s patterned wallpaper and outrageously plasticky furniture. The trompe l'oeil is fun and jarring -- here at last, is something ugly and by implication, truly charming.
The rest of the film, however, is just aggressively capable. Freeman and Kingsley are sly and suave, as they know how to be, Liu tones down her hell-cat sexiness in favor of a palatable sweetness. Hartnett, who at this point in his career can play the endearing beefcake blindfolded and strung upside down from the ceiling, goes full throttle on the cuteness. Even with the huge scar on his nose, Slevin manages to look like he just fell from a playground jungle gym and gives the kind of lopsided grin that could cause a mass sweater-knitting competition among an army of grandmothers. But that may be because he spends a lot of time walking around with a threadbare towel around his middle -- everyone keeps threatening to kill Slevin right then and there, but that towel proves too disarming.
As it is, Slevin is the best thing happening in the picture -- he alone seems to understand that too much wisecracking can ruin a dialogue and silence is really the best soundtrack to the act of murder. Eventually though, even he breaks down and starts explaining things. Cleverly, wittily, with big words and allusions to Hitchcock's "North by Northwest." The game is up and you know: however well-made, "Lucky" is a genre movie.