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Lucky Number Slevin (2006)

by on 2013/03/22

Lucky Number Slevin (2006)

“Oh hey, I was just thinking that, if you’re still alive when I get back from work tonight maybe, I don’t know, we could go to dinner or something?”

* * * *

One thing separates Lucky Number Slevin from joining the ranks of the best neo-noirs, including Memento, Mulholland Drive, and The Usual Suspects. Just one thing. A single teeny-tiny detail called “the ending”.

Not how it ends, exactly, but the how of how it ends.

First things first, though. Let’s back up a bit…

After a scene-setting introduction, we pick up the main plot in New York City. (And with quite a bit shot in Montreal, imagine the delis you’d find in this hybrid city.) Slevin Kelevra (Sin City’s Josh Hartnett) is summoned to Nick Fisher’s home. He finds his old friend missing, and is immediately mistaken for Fisher, by two separate sets of gangsters and some cops on a stakeout.

One boss (RED’s Morgan Freeman) orders him to kill a total stranger. Another (Shutter Island’s Ben Kingsley) demands the repayment of a large debt. It’s almost like Yojimbo, Fistful of Dollars, or Last Man Standing, with the central character being played by both sides, not playing them.

Speaking of Last Man Standing, Slevin is shadowed by its star, Bruce Willis, who plays a mysterious fixer named Mr. Smith. Or Mr. Goodkat. Or perhaps someone else entirely. He’s a cypher. The only certainty about him is he possesses the worst hair style ever.

As if this situation weren’t complex enough, Slevin falls for a neighbour, Lindsey (Charlie’s Angels’ Lucy Liu), who tries to help him solve the mystery, armed with the advice of TV detective Columbo. Unfortunately, she’s also the source of a couple of minor issues, yet the actress is winning, and the leads’ chemistry works well.

In fact, the whole cast is exceptionally good. Which is to say, it’s not just a good cast, but a cast that does good work here. Ben Kingsley occupies one extreme, chewing scenery with gusto. On the other hand, Freeman is mostly laid back and bemused. While he rarely plays the baddie, I so love it when he does. There’s something about that mellifluous voice shouting swear words…

It took me longer to identify what I liked about Josh Hartnett, perhaps the least familiar player to me. In one scene I suddenly flashed back to something Michael Caine once taught, that great actors don’t necessarily need lines; they need to show they have lots to say without saying anything at all. Hartnett demonstrates that quality here.

Above all else, the production feels like it was never-ending fun. Everyone projects the sense of having a good time. Nobody is ever too scared or stupid to serve up the banter. They deliver their hard-boiled dialogue with rapidfire glee. If unanimous mastery of fast-talking wordplay makes the characters all somewhat similar, then at least they share in intelligence, wit, and energy. Pop culture buffs will be in their element. If you long to hear David Mamet interpret Elmore Leonard, if you didn’t get enough from Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, or you love references to Alfred Hitchcock and James Bond, Lucky Number Slevin is definitely your film.

Which brings us to The End or, rather, the ending.

In no less than three completely distinct flashback sequences, the entire story loses the savvy confidence shown to that point, tossing out every card in its winning hand. It’s hard to say more without completely spoiling the twist. Or the other twist. Or . . . well, you know, I can’t say.

I wonder if the original director’s cut was shorter, smarter. It’s still in there somewhere. We just need a judicious editor to cut it back down. As it stands, an executive must have watched it and been confused, demanding all kinds of explanatory scenes. Yes, they successfully (over) explain the plot and, yes, they make (too) perfect sense, but they also credit the viewer with not much intelligence. The elegant mystery of Slevin’s near-peers is lost, with no reason to return to its puzzles again.

Fortunately, there’s more than mere puzzlement here. If you can overlook the ending and enjoy the ride until then, you’ll find an entertaining time, well worth the price of admission.

And remember, as I said, Morgan Freeman swearing is always well worthwhile.

* * * *

Rated R

110 minutes

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