First you hear the voice. It’s that weathered rasp you’ve heard before, delivered with the utmost gravitas. Even before the shot of the man’s legs ominously descending a large spiral staircase, you recognize the voice. It’s Morgan Freeman, and the speech he’s delivering must be really important, because it’s coming out slow and labored, staged like the long-awaited return of a diety.
Then you realize he’s talking about the Shmoo.
|Morgan Freeman loves him some Shmoo|
His words drip with seriousness, yet Freeman isn’t quoting Shakespeare or Voltaire. No, he’s actually sermonizing about the Shmoo, a semi-obscure roly-poly cartoon character that looks like a bowling pin with legs. It would be ironic if this kind of juxtaposition wasn’t so damned commonplace these days. Boy, those crime bosses sure have an arcane knowledge of cult pop culture.
What hath Lord Tarantino wrought? It’s been fourteen years now since Mr. Pink and Mr. Blue argued straight-faced over the true meaning of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” in “Resevoir Dogs,” and what a difference the years make. What was novel and clever in that film and in “Pulp Fiction” is tedious and exhausting in the hands of most people, including first-time screenwriter Jason Smilovic. Not possesing any of the flair or subtle characterization of Tarantino, “Lucky Number Slevin” is a frustrating and grim piece of hollow trickery.
Like Cary Grant in Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest” (which is directly referenced by one character), Josh Hartnett is a man who is repeatedly mistaken for somebody else. Where Grant was confused and slaphappy, though, Hartnett delivers his artificially chatty dialogue the way everyone else in the movie delivers theirs—like they are the coolest person in the room. He takes it all in stride, and even when he’s being forced to commit murder to save his own life, it just isn’t that big a deal.
Even the dumb goons in “Lucky Number Slevin” think they’re badass. When faced with the possibility that Hartnett may not be the person they were sent to retrieve, two of Freeman’s flunkies improbably force him in their car anyway wearing nothing but a towel—but not before taking their turn at hamming up some of Smilovic’s mannered and phony dialogue, to no avail. The words leave their mouths, hang in the air needily for a moment, and then then die an uncomfortable and unfunny death. There’s nothing worse than knowing how hard people are trying to make something funny, and watch them still not succeed. This scene is indicitive of the entire film, wherein there are no believable characters, just actors acting actor-y, foolishly quirking it up because that’s what is called for.*
|Smirk it up, fuzzball!|
On the other hand, the ostentatious set design and way too obvious plot coincidences clue us in that this is not meant to be real at all, but rather some sort of miserablely violent fantasy. It’s the kind of second-tier Tarantino rip-off that Guy Ritchie (“Snatch,” “Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels”) became known for, but without all the energy and genuine laughs. If director Paul McGuigan was going for a more fantasy-like feel to match his actors’ feverish speech, then maybe he should have camped up the violence a bit to match. As it stands, the body count is high from the get-go, with a broken neck and two assasinations of completely unknown characters in the movie’s opening minutes.
Don’t get me wrong. I like violence as much as the next American. But the outlandish maimings in “Kill Bill” and “Sin City” matched the tone of the movies, not to mention the fact that those films’ stylized dialogue was also clearly above the bar. Here, there’s just a miserable collection of nameless people getting murdered for reasons that aren’t really clear until the end.
There are so many reasons why the twists and turns in “Lucky Number Slevin” are unfathomable that by the time the movie reaches its surprise climax, you realize it isn’t a surprise at all. The feeling of being cheated quickly follows, and, lest the audience remain confused about any of the labyrinthine plot, Robert Forster suddenly appears as a detective not previously seen up to this point. His raison d’etre? (And I’m not kidding.)
He is there to literally explain it all to us.
With the help of tons of repetitive flashbacks.
For what seemed like about twenty minutes.
Lucy Liu is sometimes appealing, even when her lines ring false, and Ben Kingsley adds a bit of grizzled mortality to his rival crime boss character, but that doesn’t save “Lucky Number Slevin” from being a bleak and unsatisfying exercise in pointlessness.
* Speaking of actors quirking it up, in an egregious overuse of his trademark know-it-all grin, Bruce Willis smirks it up all over the place. I dare somebody to “count the smirks.” It may establish a use for this movie by turning it into a fun drinking game!