One of Alfred Hitchcock’s favorite recurring themes was that of the wrong man, an acute case of mistaken identity that often took the hero on a journey, sometimes whiz-bang and action-packed (North by Northwest), sometimes gritty, sobering and confining (The Wrong Man), sometimes a bit of both (Frenzy). Lucky Number Slevin fits into that Hitchcock mold perfectly. Watching its action unfurl, you can’t help but wonder if the Master of Suspense himself is giving a helpful tips from above to director Paul McGuigan.
McGuigan, who made the virtually unwatchable puzzler Wicker Park a few years back, performs a complete 180. The director not only redeems himself with Slevin, he buys himself some goodwill should his next few pictures tank.
Lucky in love: Hartnett and Liu
Lucky Number Slevin is engaging from minute one, as a series of quick, brutal mob-style killings play out on screen. It’s not until much later in the story that the reason for these murders becomes apparent. But once the connection is made, and a new series of events begins to play out, Lucky Number Slevin pays off handsomely. It absorbs you like a sponge.
Much of the fun in Slevin lies in its knowingly hip storytelling. This is a movie that winks at you, and you happily wink back. The screenplay by Jason Smilovic is polished to a shine; the dialogue is fresh, funny, and smart, a nod to the days of Howard Hawks. It may not be the most artful screenplay ever written — I doubt there are any Oscars in Slevin‘s future — but you can’t help but admire Smilovic’s screenwriting mechanics as he tells the story of a spry smartass named Slevin (Josh Hartnett) who, while visiting his friend Nick in New York, is mistaken for Nick by some very bad folks.
Nick, who has gone AWOL, owes a gambling debt of $96,000 to The Boss (Morgan Freeman). Thinking they’ve got Nick, The Boss’s henchmen nab Slevin — fresh from the shower and clad in nothing but a towel — for a meet and greet with their employer. The Boss makes a deal. He won’t kill Slevin so long as Slevin kills the gay son of rival mob kingpin The Rabbi (Ben Kingsley), retribution for the recent slaying of The Boss’s son by The Rabbi.
“Don’t you have people you can pay for this kind of thing?” asks Slevin.
“You owe me $96,000,” replies The Boss, still thinking Slevin is Nick. “Why should I pay someone else when I’ve already paid you?”
Things get even more complicated for our titular hero, who has a penchant for saying the wrong things at the wrong time and finding a fist slammed into his face, when The Rabbi’s men take him for a chat with their top guy. If the Rabbi knows about Slevin’s plan to off his son, he doesn’t let on, instead insisting that Slevin pay back $33,000 in gambling debt within 48 hours or take a heavenly trip.
Upon learning that The Rabbi is, in fact, a genuine Orthodox Rabbi, Slevin asks how he reconciles his religious beliefs with his murderous life.
“I’m a bad man,” answers The Rabbi philosophically. “I live on both sides of the fence. My grass is always green.”
Behind both plans looms yet another figure, a world class assassin known only as Mr. Goodkat (Bruce Willis) — the kind of person who, as one character puts it, “shows up, people die, he vanishes.” Goodkat has his own agenda, the details of which don’t become clear until the film’s breathtaking final act.
Back to Slevin. The guy has a big problem on his hands, and finds help (and comfort) in the form of Nick’s perky, inquisitive neighbor, Lindsey (Lucy Liu). Energized by Slevin’s plight, she’s instantly drawn to him — he is cavorting about in a towel when they first meet, after all. The two have a romantic spark that leads to a night of bliss — and possible danger for Lindsey. She becomes, quite literally, the girl who knew too much.
McGuigan scatters violence throughout Lucky Number Slevin, but the bloodletting is less shocking than stylish. The film has a sleek, sophisticated feel, despite the occasional use of extremely irritating jump cuts (I don’t care what the current style is, choppy editing is bad editing).
Hartnett, who also starred in Wicker Park, creates in Slevin a swift, funny hero a la Cary Grant of North by Northwest. Slevin remains fairly unflappable throughout, as he devises a plan on how to stay alive and keep his moral compass from getting stained with blood.
Freeman and Kingsley make a great study in contrasts — Freeman’s Boss is warmly menacing, while Kingsley, who vanishes completely and utterly into his role, dishes up a thuggish, mean-spirited holy man. You wouldn’t want this rabbi presiding over your Bar Mitzvah — God help you if you made a mistake in your Torah reading. He’s probably going to slice off a finger.
Stanley Tucci lends seasoning as an undercover detective who adds to Slevin’s headaches. And Willis is just plain terrific — and terrifically toupeed — as the coolest cucumber of an assassin to stroll onto the screen, guns blazing, in years.
Thrillers with strong dark comedic leanings are a hard genre for a director to pull off — not to mention pull off well. And yet with Lucky Number Slevin, McGuigan pulls it off majestically. It’s a movie I can’t wait to see again.