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Lucky Number Slevin

Too Many Tarantino Riffs for One Crime Flick

Directed by Paul McGuigan (Wicker Park, Gangster No. 1) and written by Jason Smilovic, Lucky Number Slevin is an urban crime/gangster drama wrapped around a mistaken identity storyline. Combined with familiar and/or accomplished actors like Morgan Freeman, Ben Kingsley, Bruce Willis, Lucy Liu, and Josh Hartnett (among others), viewers are bound to expect high production values (correct), slick direction (also correct), a spot of ultraviolence (more than a spot, actually), black humor (plenty), and possibly, just possibly, an engaging, semi-inventive storyline (well, almost).

In the span of 24 hours, Slevin (Josh Hartnett) has lost his job, his apartment, his girlfriend, and after arriving in New York City to visit an old friend, mugged. His old friend, Nick Fisher, isn't home, but the apartment door has been left open (a portent of very bad things to come). On the plus side, Slevin meets Nick's attractive neighbor, Lindsay (Lucy Liu), who wanders in just as Slevin is stepping out of the shower and into a towel. Moments after Lindsay's departure, thugs appear at the apartment looking for Nick. The thugs mistake Slevin for Nick, who has been summoned to meet the reclusive, penthouse-dwelling Boss (Morgan Freeman). Nick owes the Boss almost $100,00 dollars. The Boss offers Slevin a proposition: rub out his rival's son in exchange for the marker on the debt. The alternative is equally unpalatable. The Boss gives Slevin 24-hours to make up his mind one way or another.

Deposited back at Nick's apartment, Slevin is almost immediately accosted by two Hasidic henchmen. The henchmen trundle Slevin off to meet the Boss' rival, the Rabbi (Ben Kingsley), who just happens to live in a penthouse suite as well (and it's across the avenue from the Boss'). Apparently, the ever-elusive Nick owes the Rabbi a substantial amount of money too. Slevin has several days to pay up or face the unsavory consequences. Slevin's already knotty situation goes from bad to worse when Detective Brikowski (Stanley Tucci), one of New York's finest, begins to take in interest in Slevin and Nick's disappearing act. Meanwhile, a mysterious figure (Bruce Willis) operates at the margins, his agenda unclear.

Lucky Number Slevin's plot convolutions take their inspiration from several sources, including, of course, Quentin Tarantino's work in the crime/gangster genre (e.g., Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown). Not that there's anything wrong with that, but it places a heavy burden on Smilovic to come up with something we haven't seen before. He almost gets there, thanks to a mistaken identity storyline a la Alfred Hitchcock and Ernest Lehman's North by Northwest's and the outsider-setting-up-rival-crime-families shtick.

Although Lucky Number Slevin has many good points, the graphic violence or the high body count won't be among them. One glimpse at director McGuigan's C.V., which includes the ultraviolent Gangster No. 1, should tell potential viewers everything they need to know. And if that doesn't, the opening scene involving three locations and five bloody murders certainly will. Inconsequential, cartoonish, and/or typical of the crime/gangster genre in its current incarnation? Guilty on all three counts. And before we move on, let me not forget to mention the propensity of certain characters (e.g., the Boss, the Rabbi) to use near-incomprehensible patois as a way to hide their already murky motives (and impress the listeners in the process).

Lucky Number Slevin has another problem it doesn't quite overcome. With an overly convoluted storyline, explanatory flashbacks become crucial to filling us on important details or relationships. That's fine, up to a point, but flashbacks, once overused, can become momentum killers. Here that means we end up suffering from flashback fatigue by the time the end credits roll. And sympathetic characters? Never mind, Lucky Number Slevin's characters are too stylized, living in a third- or fourth-generation copy of a crime film to be sympathetic.

Ultimately, Lucky Number Slevin has what we've come to expect from Tarantino-influenced crime/gangster films: flashy visuals, graphic violence, bleakly funny dialogue, unsympathetic, shallow characters, and lackadaisical performances from a game, if mostly underused, supporting cast. And if you're wondering about "Slevin's" name, the explanation plays a key part in the behind-the-scenes plot turns.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars