Director Paul McGuigan’s best film to date is still the English gangster film Gangster No. 1 from 2000. However, the major problem with Gangster No. 1 is the same problem that plagues McGuigan’s latest effort Lucky Number Slevin. Both films suffer from a very weak final third act but while Gangster No. 1 was salvageable, the direction that Lucky Number Slevin takes completely ruins what initially promises to be a good film.
After a terrific opening credits sequence the audience are treated to an extended prologue told in flashback by the dishevelled hitman Goodkat (Bruce Willis) before finally meeting the star of the film Slevin Kelevra. Played by Josh Hartnett (who McGuigan previously directed in Wicker Park) Slevin is the classic wrong guy in the wrong place at the wrong time character. Although Hartnett is no Cary Grant, he does nicely embody this classic Hitchcockian leading man persona with his good looks and constant flow of wise cracks in the face of a situation spiralling out of control.
Through a comical series of misfortunes, Slevin gets mistaken for a gambler with a string of bad debts, which results in him being forcibly enlisted by two major crime bosses to seek revenge on the other. With just the right amount of absurdist humour the crime bosses are played by Morgan Freeman as The Boss, who heads up an African American crime family, and Ben Kingsley as The Rabbi, who runs a Jewish crime family. Other colourful characters include Stanley Tucci as Detective Brikowski, who has Slevin under surveillance, and Willis’ enigmatic and dangerous Goodkat character.
For the majority of the film everything works, with the exception of Lucy Lui’s excruciating performance as Selvin’s inquisitive love interest. The ridiculous scenario of the two crime bosses permanently hiding from each other in adjacent skyscrapers is palatable because the mood is playful despite the ever-present threat of violence. Most of all, Hartnett injects the right amount of hardboiled charm and casual cynicism into Slevin to make his ordeal an enjoyable yet tense experience to witness.
Unfortunately both McGuigan and writer Jason Smilovic are not content to simply make a slick witty film and instead the inevitable plot twists suddenly appear about two thirds of the way through. The light and playful mood unsatisfactorily gives way to something much darker as the film descends into a series of “aren’t-we-clever” revelations that were not required or asked for. Not only are these revelations largely delivered through repetitive flashbacks or James Bond style “now-that-you-are-going-to-die-I-will-tell-you-my-plans” moments, but a lot of them simply don’t make sense, especially as they are so unnecessarily convoluted.
What ultimately makes Lucky Number Slevin so unenjoyable is that it initially promised so much. The slick editing and kinetic cinematography are all used to capture the giddiness of Slevin’s situation but in the end the over use of style simply exacerbates the film’s smug attitude towards the audience. Although the legions of fanboys who claim Donnie Darko and Sin City to be the most profound films ever made may embrace Lucky Number Slevin, those who can tell the difference between a sophisticated plot twist and a contrived one will be extremely frustrated.