Miasma Vice

Washington City Paper | April 7, 2006
Lucky Number Slevin opens with two murder-robberies, but the movie truly begins when a guy in a wheelchair materializes in a waiting room and tells another guy he wants to recount a tale. The first guy, played by Bruce Willis, introduces himself as Smith, although he’ll later be known as Mr. Goodkat. He’s an assassin but also a storyteller, and the latter vocation is the more important: This is a meta gangster tale, working a narrative con on several of its central characters and pretty much all of its viewers.

Not everything that Smith says is true, but he’s far from the movie’s only liar. There’s also the title character himself, who is played by Josh Hartnett and whose name is—of course—not actually Slevin. He arrives in New York and moves into the apartment of a man he claims is a friend, and keeps protesting that he’s been mistaken for someone else. (One consequence of the ambiguous identity is at least as many beatdowns as Brendan suffers in Brick.) Slevin’s is quite a yarn, but it’s nothing compared to the one being told by screenwriter Jason Smilovic (a TV veteran) and director Paul McGuigan (the Scot responsible for The Acid House, a distant cousin of Trainspotting). They keep spinning variations to the very end of this overcomplicated tale, by which time nearly everyone and everything is exhausted.

Because an endless series of twists is both the movie’s essence and its locomotion, it would be counterproductive (and just too time-consuming) to summarize the plot. So let’s just introduce the central players. There’s Goodkat, who’s working for both the Boss (Morgan Freeman) and the Rabbi (Sir Ben Kingsley, the credits call him), two formerly allied illicit-gambling kingpins who now hate each other, fear each other, and live in fortified penthouse apartments across the street from each other. (Symmetry is one of Lucky Number Slevin’s fetishes.) Each gang lord independently has Slevin kidnapped and demands the gambling debt the kid owes. The Boss adds a wrinkle: Slevin can have the obligation forgiven if he’ll just murder the Rabbi’s gay son. Why gay? Because the movie wants to be as contemporary as it is retro, a screwball noir set in the oh-so-modern world.

Tracking all this activity as best he can is a NYPD detective, Brikowsky (Stanley Tucci), who’s excited by the news that the long-absent Goodkat is back in town. The only major character who doesn’t appear to be directly involved in some conspiracy is Lindsey (Lucy Liu), Slevin’s flirty neighbor, who enters explaining that “I’m short for my height.” Apparently a blithering innocent, she quickly falls into bed with Slevin, appreciates his Sean Connery–as–Bond impression—it’s only a movie, see?—and offers to help him with mystery-cracking tips she learned from watching Columbo. But she turns out to be a city coroner, which puts her rather closer to the multiple-homicide action than is initially suggested.

At one point, Slevin explains that he has a medical condition that prevents him from feeling anxiety. That’s another fib, but it’s an apt one: Lucky Number Slevin is a carefree exercise in murder and retribution, more concerned with style than the moral implications of its protagonist’s crusade. It turns out that Slevin is righting an old wrong (curiously, this is the third vigilante parable from Bob and Harvey Weinstein’s new company since they split from Disney last year), but there’s no great satisfaction in his quest for justice. Even with a twice-broken nose and a gun in his hand, Hartnett remains a lightweight, and having the smirky Willis as backup hardly makes him more authoritative.

But then, even Sean Connery or Peter Falk couldn’t have grounded this tale, which tiresomely flaunts its artificiality. Accepting a movie’s deceptions can be part of the fun, of course. But it’s worth noting that almost everyone who buys Slevin’s and Goodkat’s fables ends up dead.

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