Lucky Number Slevin
2006Director: Paul McGuigan
Cast: Josh Hartnett, Bruce Willis, Lucy Liu
amera tilted: concave or convex or, better still, “gettin’ its lean on.” Camera slides: languorously or with celerity. Set design: either especially tacky (wallpaper) or appropriately modest (everything else but the wallpaper). Dénouement is replaced by narration with obligatory cross-cutting scenes. Ah! We follow! But style is colonizing substance here, when it should be the other way round. Style wants to become substance. Is this possible?
Paul McGuigan, the director of Lucky Number Slevin, attempts to make it so. He almost accomplished this formidable feat with Wicker Park, where style, by some bizarre directorial alchemy, nearly transmogrified into substance. But what was most notable about the earlier film, aside from what would become McGuigan’s imprimatur, was its much-lauded “indie-pop/rock” soundtrack. Or maybe the music was simply an extension of style, a clearing out of more space for itself. And yet, movies aren’t made around, or in the service of, soundtracks. (We’re looking at you, Mr. Crowe.)
Slevin begins with an ominous, pulsating bass drum dragging us to the interior of a car. From the inside out, we see a portly man approaching the driver’s side, reaching for the door, only to be rendered disable by two assassin’s bullets, his insides being turned-out, as it were. A few more people, mostly likely unsavory, are taken out by the furtive killer before we meet Bruce Willis’ character, Mr. Goodkat, in the empty holding area of an airport terminal. Mr. Goodkat, in a wheelchair, sly but benign, unpacks a story of intrigue to the only other person in the holding area, a young man. The story, both circuitous and novel and taking place twenty years earlier, involves a fixed horse race, the rise of two burgeoning, particularly brutal mob families, and the day they sent a fatal message to all comers. The story is essential. Then, Mr. Goodkat alludes to the “Kansas City Shuffle,” a reference the young man is unfamiliar with, and while explaining that “when everyone looks one way, you go the other,” Mr. Goodkat stealthily rises from his wheelchair and snaps the young man’s neck.
Dateline: Present day now and Josh Hartnett (also of Wicker Park) is waiting for his friend, Nick Fisher, in Fisher’s vulgarly wallpapered New York apartment. Moments later, Lucy Liu’s character, Lindsay, stumbles in to borrow some “sugar.” She is surprised to find Hartnett’s character, in a towel, there alone. They both wonder aloud what could have happened to Mr. Fisher. Lindsay’s quick to suspect fowl play, and begins to balance the investigatorial acumen of a Veronica Mars with the absent-minded loquaciousness of a gadfly. This is a tenuous trick that simultaneously charms and nettles. That the “pretty” Josh Hartnett dons only a threadbare towel for the film’s first quarter, mitigated only by the fact that his nose is cracked, is likely McGuigan’s effort at splitting the difference, playing to the gender demographics, if you will.
Enter: two inept Mob lackeys, there to collect Mr. Fisher, who they rightly assume is Hartnett’s character. The scene stands alone for its sheer comic subtly, likely the funniest you’ll see this year. Apparently Mr. Fisher is in the red $96K to “The Boss” (Morgan Freeman), and after some genuinely silly antics, Hartnett’s barely clothed self is off to meet said boss. While there, Hartnett’s character doesn’t do much to deny that he’s Mr. Fisher, that it’s simply a case of mistaken identity, which is strange, and short $96K, he’s tasked to do some contract killing for “The Boss.” All is unseemly as Willis’s character skulks in the shadows.
Still mistaken for Mr. Fisher, Hartnett’s character is dragged to another Mob boss, this time The Rabbi (Ben Kingsley), owing $36K, and, in lieu of payment, tasked to perform a second contract killing. Again, Willis’ character materializes from the shadows, implicating himself in some sordid double-dealing. Later, we will, thankfully, learn the name of Hartnett’s character; since the entire film rests on the “Kansas City Shuffle” schematic, you, along with everyone else, were looking the wrong way. Snap!
Meanwhile, style and substance continue their spar. As such, the cinematography offers a distinctively pellucid palate. The deft camerawork is consistently artful and sharply focused. But Slevin avails itself with a strong script, too, that is equal parts wit and irreverence, and even moves us along a convincing train of thought. And yet, it’s too slick for its own good. Hartnett and Liu’s dialogue lapses into an idiosyncratically neat logic, as if the words were merely ornamental. Similarly, Freeman and Kingsley also prove to be ornamental, but in an entirely uncanny way. (Freeman a Mob Boss? Kingsley a Rabbi Mob Boss?)
On balance, though, Slevin turns out to be a poor man’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrells, where, if we recall, substance and style leaned against each other, back to back, to create a steady and agreeable center of gravity. To compare Slevin to Guy Ritchie’s film is flattery enough. McGuigan has crafted something not easily forgettable; doubtless, a future cult-classic for some segment of the population. Maybe style can never be substance, but it can pretend, in every way, to look like it.
By: Ron Mashate
Published on: 2006-04-25