Every now and again you’ll find your favorite A-list movie star slumming it in some low-budget indie project that never got a full release or went direct to DVD. More often than not one can assume these are simply phoned-in bill payers that actors take on between major studio projects or are favors for a friend in the lower rungs of the business. The most infamous person (I refuse to credit him as a director) to exploit this acting trend is of course everyone's favorite conman Uwe Boll, whose ability to draw respectable actors into the most awful trash never ceases to amaze.
But what do you think when a handful of highly prominent stars sign on for a movie that probably cost in total, what some of them demand from a studio just to read the script and one that is directed by someone with a far more credible, though perhaps not as high profile, reputation as someone like Boll. This is the situation I found myself in when presented with Lucky Number Slevin, the new movie from little known Scottish director Paul McGuigan (Gangster No.1, Wicker Park).
Slevin (Josh Hartnett) seems to be your average Joe Nobody flying in to New York to hook up with his old friend Nick. Upon arriving in the city however, Slevin’s luck takes a bad turn. He's mugged and his wallet is stolen. Arriving at his buddy’s apartment he finds it open and Nick nowhere to be found. As if this wasn’t bad enough luck, Slevin swiftly finds himself in some deep trouble when a couple of hoods show up at Nick’s apartment and escort Slevin, believing him to be Nick, to a meeting with The Boss (Morgan Freeman).
Nick owes the The Boss a sizeable chunk of cash and he isn’t buying Slevin’s clichéd “you’ve got the wrong guy” shtick. The Boss offers to wipe Nick’s debt in return for a favor; Slevin is to assassinate the son of The Boss’s arch-rival, Schlomo The Rabbi (Ben Kingsley), as The Boss holds The Rabbi responsible for the killing of his own son days earlier. But Slevin’s day doesn’t get any better, as no sooner is The Boss done with him than The Rabbi summons Slevin (also under the impression he is Nick) to his apartment headquarters adjacent to The Boss’s. See Nick owes The Rabbi a sizeable chunk of cash too and he’s decided it’s time to collect the debt. No favors, no alternates, just the cash in 48 hours.
With the added pressure of a suspicious cop (Tucci) applying the heat and a shady hitman (Willis) seemingly stalking him, Slevin has to try and resolve his increasingly awkward predicament while Nick’s oddball neighbour Lindsay (Lucy Liu) tries to help him uncover what happened to his friend.
The big surprise here is possibly Josh Hartnett who, since his early days in The Faculty has redefined the notion of wooden acting and has starred in some truly awful projects since which have put me off him or any movie starring him. Here he is slightly less irritating than his reputation had made me believe. He’s still wooden, yes, but not horrible. As expected Morgan Freeman plays Morgan Freeman, a man who, even as a despicable gangster character still manages to come across as a sage mentor. What is it about him and Liam Neeson? Even poor Ben Kingsley must be given his dues in this movie. Even though he hams it up for England here, it’s definitely the most respectable work he’s done in recent years. Not a great bar to overcome from a man who’s starred in Bloodrayne and Thunderbirds recently, but still a high point in the otherwise depressing career implosion of a man who once picked up an Oscar for playing Gandhi.
The real problem with Lucky Number Slevin however, is that it never seems to fully establish a consistent tone. Is it a seriously gritty thriller? Is it a quirky noir-ish black comedy? It tries to be both and more. The unflinchingly brutal violence, the often glib humor, and the quirky idiosyncratic characters never really gel together into a cohesive movie. While some other writer/directors like David Lynch can marry the disturbing, the quirky, the absurd, and the dark into something workable, McGuigan and screenwriter Jason Smilovic seem to struggle to make it all fit. Some of the dialogue attempts to be smart and ends up just smacking of trying to be clever. Again, in other more capable hands the dialogue could be tightened up to work, but in Smilovic’s debut script his inexperience shows. It doesn’t all fall flat, but again the inconsistent tone hurts it.
By way of some compensation, McGuigan has created a great looking movie. He and cinematographer Peter Sova have a really inventive use of color that brings the picture alive, from the simple opening shot of a stark white departure lounge decked with pristine blue chairs to a simple aerial shot of a car park filled with overtly bright colored vehicles that seem to be in some random yet predetermined pattern, there is very little of the movie that doesn’t look sharp.
Many movie-goers who go to see Lucky Number Slevin will find themselves rather disappointed as the story telegraphs its resolution pretty obviously from early on which is a bit of a let down. I’ll confess that though these thoughts entered my mind and though I put them to one side while I continued to watch it’s easy to see that many could not, and as a result will roll their eyes at such an obvious turn of events.
Lucky Number Slevin isn’t a bad movie, it’s just not as original or smart as it thinks it is. But, there's dark fun to be had in it and McGuigan certainly shows the potential necessary for a great future. With a more experienced hand at the helm and little more originality injected into the script Lucky Number Slevin wouldn't need luck to succeed.