(Editor's note: This review is an expansion of Cinematical's Sundance review of Lucky Number Slevin.)
Once upon a time, crime films were grim; gritty; bleak. Then Tarantino came along (and there were precedents before him, but never mind) and crime films changed -- now, the sounds issuing off the screen weren't just the crack and ricochet of bullets, but the zing! of snappy patter and high-speed wordplay. The regrettably-named Lucky Number Slevin isn't a post-Tarantino crime film; it's a post-post-post-Tarantino crime film, and when you're the millionth director to stagger through what used to be undiscovered country, it's hard to look like a pioneer.
Directed by Paul McGuigan (Gangster Number One), Lucky Number Slevin is a candy-colored crime movie that, after a few preliminary murders, starts as a wheelchair-bound man (Bruce Willis) is killing time at the train station by telling a young man about a fixed horse race. Flashing back to the '70s, Willis relates how father and husband Max came across the info about how a certain nag was a sure thing, bet all his money … and lost. Owing the money -- and being privy to a private fix -- led the two newest crime bosses in New York to punish Max by killing him. And his wife. And his son. What do murders that took place 30 years ago have to do with the here-and-now? Well, that's a long story; it's too bad it's not an entertaining one.
We don't know why Willis is revealing this information (and the film's opening 'surprise' is completely dulled by the film's marketing, which blows the ostensibly big reveal that Willis gets, but never mind). Soon enough, though, Willis's journey is interwoven with that of Slevin (Josh Hartnett), a young man who's come to New York to hang with his buddy Nick after losing his job and his girl and getting mugged. Slevin explains all this to Nick's cheerful, bubbly across-the-hall neighbor Lindsey (Lucy Liu) who's curious about where Nick is and why this stranger's in his apartment. Slevin soon has other problems, as representatives of The Boss (Morgan Freeman), believing Slevin to be Nick, take him to talk to The Boss about a small matter of $96,000 that Nick owes one of The Boss's underlings. The Boss is willing to wipe the debt -- in exchange for a small matter of murder. Next, Slevin is dragged to see The Rabbi (Ben Kingsley), The Boss's rival, about the matter of $33,000 that Nick owes. On introduction, The Rabbi is cordial: "You must be Nick." Slevin's not enthused: "Must I be? Because that hasn't been working out for me …"
If that kind of rat-a-tat chatter works for you, you'll possibly like Lucky Number Slevin, as it's loaded with similar snap-crackle-pop too-cute locutions. What you won't love is Lucky Number Slevin's plotline, as it contorts itself into one of those films where twist is piled on twist and revelation comes on the heels of other revelations. All that wrapping, though, can't conceal that Lucky Number Slevin is hollow at its core; put more bluntly, I'd be more engaged by Lucky Number Slevin's capacity to twist and turn like a crack-addled cotton snake if I were given a reason to care.
Hartnett is still a screen presence as light and weightless as lint in a hurricane; Hartnett may be possesed of fine features and a terrific complexion, but his acting is as bland as oatmeal. Willis seems to be giving another of his wig-based performances, and both Freeman and Kingsley don't get much to do aside from glower at other from their kitty-corner penthouses. Liu is bouncy and effervescent, but that's all she gets to be -- and her affection for Hartnett gets jump-started to serve the plot so swiftly it feels ludicrous by even the usual hurry-up-and-do-it standards of film storytelling.
The Sundance press screening of Lucky Number Slevin earned a few chortles from the assembled press due to screenwriter Jason Smilovic's constant barrage of quips, fast-talk blather and snappy comebacks -- much in the way that, if someone fired a shotgun at you for a hundred and ten minutes, one or two pellets would invariably strike your funnybone. Every actor in Lucky Number Slevin gets a good line or two -- what they don't get is a real character to portray or a story that matters to be part of. Packed with flash and smash-cut edits, loaded with gunfire and cheap thrills, Lucky Number Slevin is a shaggy-dog-story of a crime film with no punch to its punchline.