O Lucky Man
Josh Hartnett Gets the Best Lines and Lucy Liu in this Cleverly Forgettable Crime Yarn
The line to nominate Sir Ben Kingsley for president or prime minister or master of the universe or whatever starts right here. Yeah, he was OK in that Gandhi role that won him an Oscar, but since then he practically reinvents himself every time he steps in front of a camera. His Robert in 1983’s Harold Pinter-penned Betrayal staves off conjugal bitterness with steely, mesmerizing rage. His unflappable Itzhak subtly steals every scene opposite Liam Neeson’s linebacker acting in Schindler’s List. His Greek-isle exiled Turkish secret agent in Pascali’s Island remains the lone gemstone recommending that rather listless movie. And smoke practically courses out of his hotheaded ears as the terrorizing thug in Sexy Beast. And now in Lucky Number Slevin he turns in what may be his most comically oddball performance yet. It’s definitely the best bad Peter Falk since Elaine May’s Mikey and Nicky. What can’t the man do?
Well, elevate Slevin above the mildly entertaining, for one. Kingsley’s Schlomo the Rabbi lives tightly guarded atop a New York—Montreal, actually, but suspend disbelief and all that—high rise, where he administers to his criminal organization’s goings on and spits out convoluted aphorisms that sound like Zen koans making whoopee with a Don Rickles punch line. He lives across the street from his former partner-turned-lifelong enemy, the Boss (Morgan Freeman, his brandied voice used with syrupy evil sweetness), who oversees his own criminal activities from inside his tightly guarded top floor. And they start a not-so-clandestine war with each other when they each manipulate payment from a low-rent gambler who needs to settle his accounts with each.
Make that the mook they think owes them money. You see, handsome eye candy Slevin (Josh Hartnett, his bedroom eyebrows a twitter with higher brain function and sterling comic timing) had come to the big city to visit his pal Nick, the guy who does owe the Boss and the Rabbi. But Slevin gets mugged for his ID-carrying wallet and is the only guy at Nick’s apartment when various muscle—the Boss’ talkative men, the Rabbi’s tough-guy Hasids—comes to nab Nick. Slevin gets mistaken for Nick, and thus he’s enlisted to take out the Rabbi’s son for the Boss, undermine the Boss for the Rabbi, and try to outwit a nosy cop (Stanley Tucci) who, according to word on the streets, heard something about a top-shelf out-of-town hit man making the rounds and wonders if this Slevin fellow fits the bill.
Fortunately, Nick’s neighbor Lindsey (Lucy Liu) takes a perky shine to the new guy in town and tries to help him out a bit—as much as a coroner can help a stranger being squeezed by two crime lords—and he’s smitten right back by her foxy moxie. And then there’s this shady Mr. Goodkat character (Bruce Willis in full-on Bruce Willis mode), who is always lingering at the sidelines of Slevin’s noose-tightening and who opened the flick by breaking some guy’s neck after telling him a tale about a 1970s horse bet gone horribly wrong and the misdirection long con called the “Kansas City Shuffle.”
Yes, Slevin is one of those constantly twisty, seriously stylized crime pics very aware of its twisty crime genreness. It also boasts more accessible star power than a Vanity Fair cocktail party, but the movie’s real stars are the set decoration and production design teams that swathe every frame in 1950s and ’60s color collisions and sleek moderne design schemes only kinda/sorta updated to just this side of fake-smile tacky. The wallpaper alone in this movie is going to make Jonathan Adler leave a wet spot on his theater seat.
Jason Smilovic’s script and Paul McGuigan’s direction, however, are trying too hard to be more than merely stylish and clever, and as Slevin’s motivational puzzle pieces start falling into place, it aspires for a weightiness its setup can’t cash. The story bulges into the more preposterous, the characters start to feel a little too conveniently drawn, and the whole shebang can’t land its muffled punch of narrative surprise.
The upsides? Gangster No. 1’s McGuigan has a glee for violent killings that he just can’t hide (and, please, don’t anytime soon). Slevin is a randy balance of naive wisecracker and handsome slimeball that Hartnett wears as dapperly as he does the print shirts and sweater vests that have no right to go together as smartly as they do. Hopefully Freeman has a few more against-type bad guys in his future. And Sir Ben, chewing through a mannered accent that even Gary Oldman wouldn’t touch, can now say, “No, BloodRayne wasn’t my career’s nadir”—and mean it.