Dir. Paul McGuigan, 2005, US, 110 mins
Cast: Josh Hartnett, Lucy Lui, Morgan Freeman, Ben Kingsley, Bruce Willis
Review by Michael Blyth
Things don’t bode well for Lucky Number Slevin from the very start. Possessing what is surely one of the worst titles in recent history, it is hard to take a film seriously when it chooses to advertise itself with such a crass and flimsy witticism. Although quite how seriously the film wishes to be taken is a rather sticky situation in itself.
Hartnett plays Slevin, an apparently unfortunate guy in the wrong place at the wrong time. Having been kicked out of his apartment, Slevin borrows his friend Nick Fisher’s flat. Things start out well when Nick’s alluring neighbour Lindsay (Lui) drops in for a cup of sugar and a spot of unashamed flirtation, but Slevin’s good fortune is short lived. Believing him to be Nick, a couple of henchmen working for a key player in the criminal underworld known as The Boss (Morgan Freeman), invade the apartment and snatch Slevin, demanding he helps settle an ongoing rift with The Rabbi (Ben Kingsley). Meanwhile, a mysterious assassin named Goodkat (Bruce Willis) emerges, who perhaps offers the key to Slevin’s dilemma. Soon Slevin is caught up in a wild case of mistaken identity, and with the help of Lindsay, must uncover the truth before it is too late.
The set up may be a familiar one, but then again the device of mistaken identity is always great crime-thriller fodder. With Hitchcock’s North By Northwest (1955) the main reference point (at one point being directly cited in the script), Lucky Number Slevin is strongest when played for straight-faced thrills. Unfortunately, an irritating tendency to make light of the subject matter becomes increasingly prevalent, and the dark menace of the film’s opening scenes is swiftly replaced with an infantile urge for cheap gags. Hitchcock appreciated how a dash of black comedy could add a deliciously dark humour to heighten the tension, but here the comedy, which ranges from broad slapstick to sloppy caricature, only serves to make the film disjointed and muddled, especially when coupled with frequent scenes of surprisingly brutal violence and nihilistic sentiments.
But while the film’s narrative may struggle to satisfy, visually there are far more treats on offer. It seems that showy camerawork and gimmicky visual devices are a given in the comic-book world of the gangster sub-genre, and Lucky Number Slevin is no exception. Much like the wafer-thin output of Guy Richie, director McGuigan employs persistent sharp edits and clever-clever trick shots as a means of impressing where the plot cannot, and he does so with a certain flair. However, it is in the production design that the film is particularly striking. The lavishly decorated sets are overflowing with gorgeous detail, most evident in the busy wallpapers that decorate the rooms, packed with stripes, circles and elaborate floral designs. Had the film been as smart as it would like to think it is, these hectic visuals could have offered a nice metaphor for Slevin’s situation, and the intricacies of the plot twists and turns. As it stands, the twists are neither surprising nor particularly cunning, and such details simply succeed in keeping the eyes engaged when the mind has inevitably begun to wander.