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Lucky Number Slevin (2006) Home Video Review

Unusually Suspect

This is a hard one to write.  For years, friends and family members have told me, “You’ve got to see Lucky Number Slevin! You’ll love it!”

I can understand why they thought this.  Anyone who knows me well understands how much of a Quentin Tarantino freak I am—bonus points for those who understand my eternal gratitude for Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects, for helping to change the way I watch movies.  The problem with recommending movies to a die-hard fan of a particular film is that said fan will have their radar finely tuned to catch similarities.  And I hate to be the bearer of bad news to the (inexplicably) large Slevin cult, but this movie is rotten to its core and derivative as all hell.

I have no doubt that screenwriter Jason Smilovic and director Paul McGuigan are fans of Tarantino and Singer, too.  It’s impossible not to consider Lucky Number Slevin as their love letter to the auteurs, jammed as it is with what could politely be considered homages—or, impolitely, blatant rip-offs.  I could rattle off two-thousand words as to what doesn’t work about this picture, but I don’t have the energy and the movie is, frankly, undeserving.

Instead, allow me to break down the film’s five major flaws (in no particular order):

1.  Dialogue Slog.  Quentin Tarantino has built a reputation around fantastic dialogue.  Like Kevin Smith, Tarantino writes casual conversations with impossibly witty and vibrant wordplay.  You’ve never heard anyone talk like his characters, but his words and his actors sell the illusion that hit-men really do give a fuck what they call a Quarter Pounder with Cheese in Paris.  Tarantino's rhythm and keen ear keep the scenes from ringing false.

In contrast, Smilovic’s dialogue is so poor, so obviously trying to be cute, that you can see the pages of the screenplay as semi-transparent overlays on each frame of film.  Seventy percent of the exchanges in Lucky Number Slevin are best described as gussied-up “Who’s on First” routines.  Allow me to paraphrase:

Guy #1:  I need coffee.

Guy #2:  You need coffee?

Guy #1:  Yeah, I need coffee.

Guy #2:  Why you need coffee?

Guy #1:  ‘Cause I’m tired.

Guy #2:  Why’re you tired?

Guy #1:  ‘Cause I need coffee.

2.  Clues Blues.  By the time Lucky Number Slevin was released, we’d had more than a decade of Twist Movies—typically complex crime dramas or quirky indies that all hinged on a big, climactic shell game designed to force the audience back into the theatre to see how they’d been duped.  Slevin wants to play in that arena, but is not slick enough to outwit the cleverest fan of the Twist Movie.

The entire picture was ruined for me about ten minutes in because of a sloppy mistake in a flashback.  It begins with Bruce Willis telling a story to a kid in a bus station about a down-on-his-luck gambler in the 70s.  The gambler loses big on a racehorse and ends up owing $22,000 to a big-time mobster.  He doesn’t have the cash, so the mob kills the gambler and his family.

We see the gambler beaten and suffocated with a plastic bag; we see his wife shotgunned to death in her kitchen; we see their son in the middle of the woods with a gun pointed at the back of his head.

Did you catch that?  Suffocated dad; blown-away mom; kid with a gun pointed at the back of his head.  Judging by the movie poster, I guess we’ve found our young Josh Hartnett.

This scene was built solely as a trigger for the Climax Flashback, where it is revealed that the kid whom everyone thought was dead turns out to be the guy we thought was a hapless pawn—who also turns out to be the guy pulling the strings all along (I wonder if the Slevins and the Sozes were neighbors?).

Watching the rest of the movie, it’s no chore to suss out the identity of the mobster or the hitman who almost killed the little boy.  Seriously, Lucky Number Slevin only works as a mystery if you spent the first ten minutes texting instead of paying attention.

3.  On Actors and Legitimacy.   I don’t know how McGuigan and company managed to wrangle such a great cast, from Morgan Freeman and Ben Kingsley as rival mob bosses; to Hartnett and Lucy Liu as the central love interests; to Stanley Tucci as a cop; and Bruce Willis as a shadowy killer playing both sides of a gang war.  I do know that Smilovic squanders everyone’s talents except for Tucci’s (until the very end, where he undoes all of this character’s coolness with the movie’s fifth plot twist).

There are no memorable performances here, probably because all of the actors are in service of a story that isn’t worth telling.  As such, everyone phones in their dialogue.  Freeman is the Laid Back Badass with the Voice of God; Kingsley reprises his ineffectual criminal mastermind role from Sneakers; Liu plays a coroner, but we find this out way too late in the movie to buy her as anything but the stereotypical hot, bubbly Asian whose schoolgirl outfits, I assume, are all at the cleaners; Willis squints a lot.

The only performer serviced by the screenplay is Hartnett, whose character has a medical condition that prevents him from showing emotion or surprise (not kidding)—I guess when your star makes Keanu Reeves look like Tom Hanks, it’s time to search “Obscure Bullshit Afflictions” on WebMD.

4.  Tone Deaf.  It’s rare that a movie is so lacking in a discernable tone that I grab either side of my head in frustration and grumble at the television.  Lucky Number Slevin alternates between quirky crime picture (complete with a pair of goofy hitmen—one of them has a severe overbite!), romantic-encounter movie, heavy mob drama and depressingly heavy mob drama.

The scattershot narrative, flashbacks and changing film stocks are reminiscent of Natural Born Killers—but that movie had a point. In Oliver Stone, it also had a writer/director who knows that it’s possible to create and sustain different moods, as long as you’re always working to keep the audience on the film’s side.

5.  Men of Steal.  There’s a fine line between imitation and thievery, and Lucky Number Slevin crosses it, perhaps unwittingly.  The movie features a pair of totems that cleverly inject life into an otherwise dead script.  The first is a wristwatch passed down from father to son, which keeps popping up as a character point for Slevin (Hartnett).  The next is a briefcase that Slevin uses to send a message to Ben Kingsley’s character; he owes the mobster $96,000 and when he shows up to make the delivery, he hands him a case containing, “Everything I owe you” (the case is empty).

These are indeed bad-ass concepts.  Frankly, they floored me…when I saw them sixteen years ago in Pulp Fiction and True Romance (both Tarantino-scripted movies).

I’ve barely touched on the plot of Lucky Number Slevin.  It’s so dense with twists and developments—and yet so ultimately pointless—that I can't be bothered to go into specifics.  And that’s a real shame, given the talent involved and the fact that the movie is nearly two hours long.

I saw Pulp Fiction fourteen times in the theatre when I was in high school.  On every outing, I discovered something new about the characters, the story, or about events in other Tarantino films.  I got everything Lucky Number Slevin had to say in about the first twenty minutes, and discovered only that I need to be more skeptical when people insist that I’ll love the movies they love, based on movies I’ve loved.  No offense.

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