Like Bruce Willis’s cranky hitman Goodkat assures us in the sleepy opening to Paul McGuigan’s Lucky Number Slevin, this is a story that pulls the rug out from under you big time, going left when you look right and anchoring the very glib, cavalier crime shenanigans in something solid and emotional in the eleventh hour. It’s a wild, wacky film that borrows from others and often gets sidetracked by itself, but it’s also one of the most stylish, ambitious and beautifully made crime dramas of the last few decades, and has become an all time favourite for me.
Josh Hartnett plays the mysterious Slevin, a hapless dude who is constantly mistaken for an even more hapless dude named Nick Fisher. Fisher is in a lot of trouble, owing large gambling debts to feuding NYC mobsters The Boss (Morgan Freeman) and The Rabbi (Ben Kingsley), debts which now forfeit to Slevin simply because he’s consistently in the wrong place at the wrong time. Then there’s the overzealous, shady NYPD cop (Stanley Tucci in mean mode) shadowing him, plus the bubbly girl next door (Lucy Liu) who tags along in his adventures in mistaken identity. It’s all very overelaborate, convoluted and long winded, but it’s part of what makes the thing so magical. Characters often use ten words where two will do, employ quirky anecdotes, monologue and show their pithy eccentricities, it’s an oddball script by Jason Smilovic that makes for one labyrinthine ride through New York City’s peculiar underworld dating back to the 70’s. The actors are having an absolute blast here and we get further work from Mykelti Williamson, Cory Stoll, Danny Aiello, Peter Outerbridge and more. A standout is the great Robert Forster in a cameo as a cop who delivers more exposition in one single scene than I’ve seen in some entire films, he’s a great enough actor that he fills a seemingly inconsequential role with wit and personality.
McGuigan is a stylist who throws colour and pattern into the mix even when the scene doesn’t call for it, to great effect. Why shoot in a drab warehouse or monochromatic apartment when you can douse your set in kaleidoscope design just for the sheer hell of it? It works, the offbeat production design serving to illustrate and accent a very strange, often hilarious yet ultimately human story. Much of the film is near cartoon level neo noir that doesn’t dig two deep, but there are three scenes, and I can’t be specific here without spoiling, that anchor it straight into the ground, provide an emotional core and make something heartfelt cut through the tomfoolery. Many people wrote this off as just silliness, but that’s lazy criticism 101. This is a fantastic film, full of many things to love. It’s probably Hartnett’s best work in a very eclectic career and his romantic chemistry with Liu (also superb) is patiently developed and adorable to see. Freeman and Kingsley eat up the dialogue like wisened old alligators and have a blast playing their arch villains. Willis is darkly charismatic and empathetic when he needs to be, stealing every scene. A classic for me.