Director Paul McGuigan was channeling British movie-maker Guy Ritchie when he put together this black comedy, a movie with the pacing of an MTV video and DNA that can be directly traced to Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels or Snatch.
One big difference is the absence of cockney or Irish gypsy accents. So the dialogue is easier to understand.
The plotline is another matter.
We are bombarded with short, snappy flashbacks, some of which are legitimate and some of which are swerves. Lots of quips and clever repartee add to the whimsy of a storyline that has us smiling until it turns dark and sinister. That’s when we finally realize what’s going on.
This is, at the end of the day, a movie about revenge, brutal revenge for a series of horrific killings. And there’s no way to laugh about any of that.
Title character Slevin Kelevra (Josh Hartnett) seems more nonchalant and casual than he ought to be given the dire circumstances he finds himself in. But he knows from the get-go what we only learn much later.
He is mistaken for Nick Fisher, who owes debts and obligations to two crime kingpins—The Rabbi (Ben Kingsley) and The Boss (Morgan Freeman). The identity mix-up puts Slevin in a potentially lethal situation.
Lurking on the fringes of the story is Mr. Goodkat (Bruce Willis, with an awful hairpiece), an international assassin who has been hired by both mob bosses to eliminate Fisher/Slevin after his debts have been settled.
The bosses, once allies, are now bitter enemies who live in bulletproof penthouses in two New York City apartment buildings across the street from one another.
The Rabbi has a gay son. The Boss has a doomed son, one of the first of many characters to be rubbed out as Mr. Goodkat or Slevin or some other unknown force moves about this convoluted and claustrophobic underworld.
There is, of course, a romantic interest.
Lindsey (Lucy Liu) hooks up with Slevin after he unexpectedly shows up in her neighbor Nick Fisher’s apartment. Slevin, wearing just a bath towel, tells her he has come to visit Fisher to get over his recent breakup with a girlfriend. In flashback, we see Slevin walking in on his girlfriend having sex with someone else. We see it, but did it really happen? And is Fisher really an old friend, as Slevin claims?
Lindsey is a coroner, so she gets to see a lot of the bodies that pile up as Slevin, Mr. Goodkat, the Rabbi, the Boss and a police detective named Brikowski (Stanley Tucci) play cat-and-mouse with guns blazing.
Fisher (Sam Jaeger) has a life-changing (or ending) encounter with Mr. Goodkat in a bus station early in the movie.
“There was a time,” Mr. Goodkat says, apropos of nothing, before offering Fisher a rambling account that includes an explanation of a con called the “Kansas City Shuffle,” a story about a fixed horse race from years earlier and the brutal assassination of a family by mobsters looking to make a point.
We get to know those mobsters and one of the family members as Lucky Number Slevin unfolds.
HIT: The pacing is energizing and the dialogue at times is superb, even when it has little to do with the storyline. This is, in many ways, a cartoon. And it works best when viewed on that level.
MISS: There are several outlandish assassinations. Slevin takes out a bookmaker and his two goonish bodyguards with a pair of glasses and a baseball, for example. But the most ridiculous comes when Willis, armed with two guns equipped with silencers, blows away two former Mossad agents who come at him not through the door of the apartment where he is waiting, but literally through the wall. Somehow, he knows that will be their entry point and has his guns pointed in that direction.
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “If Pulp Fiction impregnated The Usual Suspects, the spawn would look a lot like Lucky Number Slevin. Great genes, but you keep wondering when the kid is going to grow up and find an identity of his own. . . . Actually, the performances are juicy, with Freeman and Kingsley hamming it up royally during a double-torture scene. But that’s getting too deep into the plot, which is the film’s downfall. Director Paul McGuigan keeps the blood splashing. But the convoluted ain’t-I-clever script by Jason Smilovic has a cheat ending that makes you want to do a little torturing yourself. Don’t you hate it when that happens?”—Peter Travers, Rolling Stone
REALITY CHECK: The shocked look on Lindsey’s face when she returns to the apartment and comes upon Slevin with his bath towel open was for real. According to interviews that both Liu and Hartnett did after the movie was released, he deliberately and unexpectedly flashed Liu when she reopened the apartment door to get the cup of sugar she had originally come for. Lindsey’s “Thanks for the sugar, Sugar” line as she leaves the apartment for a second time takes on a whole new meaning in that context.
REPEATED WATCHING QUOTIENT: If you’re a fan of the quirky, dark-comedy, gangster drama, any Tarantino or Ritchie film would be a better choice for a second look.
GOOF: There is a flashback that makes reference to a Mets-Phillies baseball game on the radio in 1979. By way of explanation, Tony Taylor is mentioned as the Phillies second baseman. Taylor retired in 1976. The Phillies starting second baseman in 1979 was Manny Trillo.
“I KNOW THAT GUY”: Veteran character actor Robert Forster (who has a leading role in Jackie Brown) has a very brief part as a cop named Murphy talking on the phone with Brikowski (Tucci).
BEST LINE: “I live on both sides of the fence and the grass is always green,” says The Rabbi when Slevin asks him how he justifies being both a man of religion and a gangster.
VIOLENCE LEVEL: It’s nonstop. There are, in fact, four murders before we hear any significant dialogue.
BODY COUNT: Eighteen.
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[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]
George Anastasia is a crime reporter for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and author of several books, including “Blood and Honor” which Jimmy Breslin called “the best gangster book ever written.”
Glen Macnow was a writer for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and “Detroit Free Press.” He is currently a talk-radio host on 610-WIP in Philadelphia.
George and Glen have co-authored “The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies.”