Lucy Liu, Josh Hartnett, ...
Credit: Lucky Number Slevin: Attila Dory

Lucky Number Slevin is not exactly an inviting title for a booby-trapped hipster gangster thriller — it looks like a misprint and sounds, when you say it aloud, as if it were being uttered by Sylvester the Cat. The awkwardness is hardly incidental, though. Like everything else about this scrambled-time-frame, hoodwink-the-audience, so-clever-it’s-too-clever-by-half contraption of a movie, that pesky title is meant to noodge your brain, to leave you with a nattering question — what the hell is slevin? — instead of an answer.

Here are some of the questions you may have. Why does Bruce Willis, looking rumpled in a fedora as he sits in a wheelchair in the middle of an empty airport terminal, confront a baffled young man with a long and winding yarn about a misbegotten racetrack bet, only to get up from his chair and snap the fellow’s neck? Why does a guy named Slevin (Josh Hartnett) — okay, that’s one mystery solved — get mistaken for a guy named Nick, then hauled away by thugs to the wood-paneled penthouse lair of an underworld boss called…the Boss (Morgan Freeman)? Why is Slevin told that he must commit a hit for him, even though he’s never killed anybody in his life? Why does another boss, this one known as the Rabbi (Ben Kingsley) — because he is, in fact, a rabbi — haul Slevin into his penthouse too? Why do the two penthouses face each other? When the person Slevin is ordered to kill turns out to be the Rabbi’s gay son (who is known as the Fairy), and Slevin, to set him up, asks him on a date, is it just another cute plot device or does it carry a whiff of homophobia? Does it matter? Does anything in this movie matter?

Not really, and that’s a problem. With its double-cross enigmas folded into blood, guts, and bullets, Lucky Number Slevin wants to bend your brain the way that Pulp Fiction and (for some) The Usual Suspects did. In any given scene, we’re supposed to be reacting on two levels at once: to the punchy immediacy of vicious happy-talk criminals, and to the mildly intellectual crossword-puzzle suspense of figuring out how the bizarre scenario fits together. Lest we forget that it’s all in good fun, there are scenes like the one in which Slevin and the sexy coroner next door (Lucy Liu) bond over their love of James Bond flicks, riffing on the various actors who played Blofeld — a pop debate in the Tarantino tradition, except that the trivia in question is far too standard-issue. Jason Smilovic’s script, which keeps you guessing just enough to keep you occupied, has been staged with aggressive finesse by director Paul McGuigan, and Hartnett, who worked with McGuigan once before (in the truly romantic — and far superior — puzzle mystery Wicker Park), knows how to use his pie-eyed boyish lethargy to maximum duplicitous effect. It’s amusing to see Kingsley do what looks like a winking impersonation of overcooked De Niro. Yet Lucky Number Slevin, for all its game invention, is less Pulp Fiction than an Elmore Leonard knockoff crossed with Deathtrap: a thriller that holds less interest — and less water — the more it reveals about what’s actually going on.

Lucky Number Slevin
  • Movie
  • 109 minutes