[Screen It]

(2006) (Josh Hartnett, Bruce Willis) (R)

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Suspense/Black Comedy: After being mistaken for someone else, an otherwise unassuming man must deal with two crimes bosses with a vendetta against each other as well as a hired gun whose allegiance to anyone is questionable at best.
Slevin (JOSH HARTNETT) is an unassuming young man who's arrived in New York City to visit his friend Nick. After meeting his pal's neighbor, Lindsey (LUCY LIU), Slevin has a decidedly less satisfying encounter with two thugs who mistake him for Nick and insist that he must accompany them back to meet The Boss (MORGAN FREEMAN). The crime lord informs him -- thinking he's Nick -- that he owes a bookie nearly $100,000 who in turn owes The Boss.

In lieu of payment, The Boss gives Slevin the option of killing Yitzchok (MICHAEL RUBENFELD), the gay adult son of arch rival crime boss The Rabbi (BEN KINGSLEY). It turns out Slevin -- or rather Nick -- also owes money to The Rabbi who's employed the services of Goodkat (BRUCE WILLIS), a highly proficient assassin also working for The Boss.

As the bodies start piling up and Detective Brikowski (STANLEY TUCCI) tries to get to the bottom of what's occurring, a series of unexpected developments and revelations eventually cloud the picture regarding who's working with whom as well as who might be the last man standing.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
Although there are some people who manage to speak and behave in a cool and hip fashion (in general or whether in the presence of women and/or danger), most of us come off looking foolish while trying to do so. Thank goodness we have the movies. After all, armed with a screenwriter with an ear for catchy dialogue and a performer who has the right nuances to deliver it, cool-impaired viewers can live vicariously through such characters and the films in which they appear.

That's exactly the sort of reaction director Paul McGuigan and screenwriter Jason Smilovic are trying to elicit with the purposefully awkwardly titled "Lucky Number Slevin." While not quite up there with today's current master of hip dialogue and ultra-cool characters -- that being Quentin Tarantino -- the film comes close. And while it has its share of design flaws -- including trying a bit too hard to be clever in a way that ultimately draws attention to itself -- this crime caper turns out to be a fairly entertaining diversion for viewers who don't mind the Tarantino-esque blend of violence, bloodshed, language and more.

The film starts out with a number of quick murders before settling in on Bruce Willis appearing in a wheelchair and commenting on the Kansas City Shuffle that, in this case, has been in the making for twenty years. We're then led into a series of flashback sequences involving a race horse, a desperate man and a bet made with the wrong type of people.

Following a quick bit of violence, we're then back to Willis as he breaks a man's neck, stating that you can't have the KC Shuffle without a body. The film then abruptly switches gears as Josh Hartnett (reunited with McGuigan from "Wicker Park") arrives at his buddy's apartment and meets Lucy Liu's friendly and chatty neighbor.

That's when the artificial yet slick movie banter starts, and it even continues when two thugs show up, mistake the title character for his friend and then escort him back to meet their boss who's conveniently named "The Boss." Confronted by Morgan Freeman's cool but menacing crime lord character, Slevin continues with his witty and irreverent badinage. Accordingly, it makes one think he's 1) a wiseacre, 2) too dim to realize his predicament, 3) a dead man and/or 4) obviously a screenwriting creation rather than a believable character.

He eventually explains that he suffers from a condition known as freedom of worry, a state I began to ponder might have also afflicted the filmmakers in terms of where their story was headed. In a sense, it began to play like one of those black comedies that's just a notch off and thus doesn't feel as successful in execution as was intended in conception.

That feeling continued with Slevin meeting the film's second crime lord -- the imaginatively named "The Rabbi" -- where the repartee keeps flowing like a broken cinematic spigot (and is the kind that would usually lead to a cement shoe fitting with characters like these). But considering the KC Shuffle angle (regarding misdirection), as well as the mistaken identity plot, I should have realized I was being had (along with everyone else).

For the filmmakers have more up their sleeves than initially suggested and obviously had my attention focuses elsewhere while pulling their storytelling con. I won't give away the details of the switcheroo, but let's just say the film gets bettor as it goes. Slathered in abundant hip style, the it looks great and moves along at a good clip, thus allowing the terrific cast -- that also includes Stanley Tucci and Robert Forster -- to have fun running with the material and their slightly over the top characters.

Kingsley's most guilty of that, but Hartnett delivers a fun take on his multilayered persona (that is, once you get used to the banter and understand its intention and use). And while both Freeman and Willis could play these sorts of roles in their sleep, they manage to create engaging characters.

While the film's "look at me" attempts of being ultra clever, hip and twisty might put off some viewers, the cumulative effect overcomes any directly related deficiencies and/or problem areas. While not up to matching Tarantino blow for cool blow, this "Lucky Number Slevin" is worth the bet. It rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed February 9, 2006 / Posted April 7, 2006

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