LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN (director: Paul McGuigan; screenwriter: Jason Smilovic; cinematographer: Peter Sova; editor: Andrew Hulme; music: J. Ralph; cast: Josh Hartnett (Slevin), Bruce Willis (Goodkat), Stanley Tucci (Brikowski), Lucy Liu (Lindsey), Morgan Freeman (the Boss), Ben Kingsley (the Rabbi), Michael Rubenfeld (Yitzchok), Kevin Chamberlin (Marty), Dorian Missick (Elvis), Sam Jaeger (Nick); Runtime: 110; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Chris Roberts/Christopher Eberts/Kia Jam/Anthony Rhulen/Tyler Mitchell/Robert S. Kravis; MGM/Weinstein Company, The; 2006)

"A twisty and stylish but disposable thriller that leads nowhere with its inflated plot."

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A twisty and stylish but disposable thriller that leads nowhere with its inflated plot. It aspires to be in the same company as Hitchcock's classic "North By Northwest," but that's only a pipe dream. Josh Hartnett is cast in the Cary Grant role, and only sputters through his mistaken identity role proving he couldn't hold Cary's jock strap; he seems like an amateur version of Cary running around NYC half naked and trying to act like a cool dude with a broken nose without getting any humor out of his predicament. The thoroughbred supporting cast of Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, Ben Kingsley, and Stanley Tucci are done in by Jason Smilovic's irrelevant script. Director Paul McGuigan ("Wicker Park") is the wannabe Tarantino-esque quipster, who tries to be a smart-ass and make a kitsch revenge modern film noir. It eventually sinks from its own attempt to be so clever, as the purposeful hocus-pocus story line comes clear at the end but the serious explanation to the mystery is superficial, lacks sincerity and is less than believable.

It opens to a degenerate gambler but loving family man learning about a drugged horse running in 1979 in Aqueduct Racetrack, and losing a bundle when the horse collapses before the finishing line. A new gambling syndicate handled his action and want to teach the man a lesson about betting on a fixed race, and order the contract killing of him, his wife and young son. In the next scene a traveler named Nick (Sam Jaeger) at the airport is approached by a wheelchair-bound stranger, whom we will learn later is the notorious hit man Goodkat (Bruce Willis). He has a deadly way of telling the young man a tale about a family's massacre following a bad racetrack day and relates that the tale has to do with something called a "Kansas City Shuffle," which is really the name of a song but referenced here to be slang for intentional misinformation (of directing a person’s attention away from what’s really going on). From hereon we are saddled with a misleading flashback and pick up the story of the enigmatic Slevin (Josh Hartnett) visiting his supposed friend Nick (Sam Jaeger) in his apartment and meeting Nick's neighbor Lindsey (Lucy Liu), a sassy coroner, who quickly is established as his love interest. Then two thugs arrive and refuse to believe he's not Nick, and take him to see the boss of a gambling syndicate who goes by the handle of the Boss (Morgan Freeman). Slevin is told that he owes a huge gambling debt, approaching $96,000, and that to wipe the slate clean he's to kill within three days Yitzchok (Michael Rubenfeld), the son of the Rabbi (Ben Kingsley), his gambling syndicate rival who just killed his son. Slevin seems to be taking in his options when the Rabbi's Hassidic strongmen drag him off to their boss, who also wants a hugh gambling debt of $33,000 paid back or else. Keeping tabs on the two crime lords, who live in adjacent buildings, is a detective named Brikowski (Stanley Tucci), stationed in a mobile truck between the two buildings. To add to the mystery, Goodkat appears with both crime bosses and seems be working for both.

The key to the film's success is finding a way to sympathize with Hartnett's troubled character, but he's such a bland performer and acts without conviction that he can't pull it off. Otherwise the story line is so repulsive and all the characters are so ugly, that there's not much to get worked up about. The supposedly clever machinations of the plot
seemed to hold out for better possibilities than what finally comes about. Less is better might be the lesson learned, as when the pupil McGuigan in his best imitation of his teacher Tarantino offers lighthearted digressions on Bond, Hitchcock and the cartoon of the Shmoo, there's some hope that maybe this will turn out to be comedy (unfortunately the film remains free of humor). But when left on his own to work out a resolution for this messy thriller McGuigan flunks the course, as the film leaves one feeling all the worse for staying with such a loser all the way to the home stretch.

REVIEWED ON 4/10/2006        GRADE: C-

Dennis Schwartz: "Ozus' World Movie Reviews"