Favorite

Sans Quentin 

Lucky Number Slevin plays Tarantino's game, without Tarantino's results.

As crime cartoons go, it's smug, derivative -- and witty.
  • As crime cartoons go, it's smug, derivative -- and witty.
You may not yet have lost your ardor for the pressure-point hammerblow Quentin Tarantino executed on American movies, but it's difficult at this late date not to view him as a necessary inoculation with unfortunate side effects: gas, bloating, dizziness, delusions of cleverness.

The fad seemed to have peaked a few years back, but overwritten, slang-fueled screenplays still impress the small-studio suits. And so we have Paul McGuigan's Lucky Number Slevin, a smug, derivative, but frequently witty crime cartoon set in a mythical New York City, where dueling underworld kingpins (Morgan Freeman and Ben Kingsley) face each other in sealed towers, the chasm between them spanned by unimpressive digital swoops. The noir vibe is a self-conscious affectation, and bloodshed is used for nervous laughs, because the movie alerts us in every scene that what we're experiencing is a meaningless and tractionless gag, and nothing more.

As spun by Scotch hotshot McGuigan (The Acid House, Gangster No. 1), the plot is standard-operating-procedure curlicue hyperbole, a one-up grift over The Usual Suspects that seems impossible to untangle until the film inevitably explains it all, laboriously, in speeches. What passes for screenplay structure, as with Spike Lee's Inside Man, is merely self-involved Erector Set rigging that signifies nothing but itself and in the end requires a dump of desperate exposition. We begin with Bruce Willis, lounging in a wheelchair in a bus depot, regaling a barely interested schlub with backstory (racetrack, bad luck, murder), and then leap to the present, where Slevin (an amiable Josh Hartnett) comes from out of town and is mistaken for his deadbeat friend, who's in gambling hock to both of the towered bosses.

Before the moronic henchmen show up, and before Slevin sits down for expansive, sparring, jovial exchanges with the respective mega-crooks, Hartnett's boy-toy meets cute with flibbertigibbet coroner Lindsey (Lucy Liu). There isn't much of a good reason why the entire film couldn't have occupied itself with Hartnett and Liu dishing, making bedroom eyes in a cheap apartment kitchen, and just being as bubbly together as a truckload of canned champagne. Even a distended discussion of Bond movies can be forgiven amid the barely repressed giggles.

But then the story mechanics must begin locking gears and churning out contrivances, clichés, oversimplistic complexities, brutal stereotypes, and pounding glibness. (Even the other characters grow tired of remarking on how relaxed and unthreatened Hartnett's wiseass seems, which is just one of a thousand clues the movie hands us to its obligatory secret über-narrative.)

It's a humorous but empty vessel, with unengaged time enough for you to consider how Tarantino's babbling influence is at least preferable -- wittier and craftier -- to that of Joe Eszterhas or Shane Black. The lingering sense of Slevin is as an amusement park for the actors, who are as overjoyed with the bouncy banter as preschoolers on Christmas morning. As with tired parents, our pleasure is primarily vicarious, and whatever gifts we get are nothing impressive.

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More by Michael Atkinson

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