Who doesn’t like a nice, twisty gangster mystery with turns calibrated to keep you off guard and an ending calculated to astonish you with its brazenness, especially one crammed with tasty dialogue? They used to come fast and furious in the forties during the heyday of film noir, courtesy of the much-maligned studio system, and one was reminded of how much fun they were by a successful modernization like Bryan Singer’s “The Usual Suspects” (1995). That’s the exalted company to which “Lucky Number Slevin” aspires. Unfortunately, though it has many virtues, it doesn’t quite make the cut.
The convoluted script by Jason Smilovic opens with what’s effectively a flashback, in which a callow young father tries to make a killing at as racetrack by betting the farm (and then some) on a horse he’s learned is rigged to win. Things don’t turn out as planned, of course, and his inability to pay back the money he’s borrowed leads to a series of deaths, including–it seems– his own, his wife’s and his young son’s. Cut to the present, where an unidentified young man is approached in a blindingly bright but deserted airport terminal by a wheelchair-bound chatterbox named Smith (Bruce Willis), who explains the meaning of the phrase “Kansas City Shuffle”–a locution indicating a clever means of directing somebody’s attention away from what’s really going on.
That becomes the motif of the larger plot that follows, a Hitchcockian “Wrong Man” scenario which begins as another young man named Slevin (Josh Harnett) arrives in New York City to crash in the apartment of his pal Nick, who’s unaccountably left the place vacant. Slevin quickly makes the acquaintance of Lindsey (Lucy Liu), a coroner’s aide who lives across the hall, but before anything can happen between them, two blundering thugs show up, mistake Slevin for Nick, and drag him off for a meeting with a crime lord called The Boss (Morgan Freeman), who threatens him with a dire fate if he doesn’t repay his huge gambling debt. But The Boss offers an alternative: he’ll forget the money if Slevin will kill his arch-rival The Rabbi (Ben Kingsley), who lives across the way in a twin tower, as isolated and well-defended as the Boss is himself. But as it turns out, Slevin is apparently but a cog in a larger, more ambiguous game, when Smith, now perfectly ambulatory, turns up as a high-priced hit-man who’s in the employ of both bigwigs. Also on hand is Stanley Tucci as a brash cop who’s certain Slevin’s up to no good.
It wouldn’t be fair to reveal the further contortions of the plot, but while you wish the turns would take your breath away (the way those in “Suspects” did), they really don’t, though not for lack of trying. Without revealing the details, it must also be said that things wrap up with a sequence that’s overlong and demeaning to some of the cast, and a sentimental twist that just doesn’t feel right after all the smarty-pants business that’s preceded.
But there’s fun to be had along the way. The picture looks great–production designer Francois Sequin and art directors Pierre Perrault and Colombe Raby have fashioned an elegantly colorful array of sets, which cinematographer Peter Sova uses with verve and dexterity under Paul McGuigan’s vigorous direction (even though their best efforts can’t make Montreal a fully persuasive stand-in for the Big Apple). McGuigan also gets solid work from his cast. Harnett, looking remarkably buff and clearly savoring the whiplash dialogue Smilovic has provided him with, is far more jovial and confident than he’s seemed in the past, and the chirpily pessimistic Liu makes a fine partner for him. As for Freeman, Kingsley, Willis and Tucci, they’re not asked to go much beyond their basic ranges, but they’re here for their presence, and it pays off.
“Lucky Number Slevin” is a tidy movie–the script’s honest, tying up all the narrative threads neatly in the end. And a good deal of the writing is slick and funny; you can understand why the actors were drawn to it. In the end, though, it winds up as little more than a clever puzzle. Though the pieces ultimately fit together, when fully revealed the picture proves less than meets the eye.