Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Apr 10, 2006 10:02 am 
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Something old and something new: thoroughly entertaining

"So here's an audience's dilemma," a Hollywood Reporter piece on this movie goes. "You know you've been had, but do you like it -- or not?" Pulp Fiction and The Usual Suspects obviously influenced the young Jason Smilovic. In his late teens when they appeared, he wrote the screenplay for Lucky Number Slevin at twenty-three. He no doubt did know he'd been had when he saw those and knew he liked it -- well enough to want to do something in the same vein -- with a strong dash of gangster noir -- and stir his influences into a spicy stew that anticipates the bizarrely baroque plotting and heavy body counts of Park Chan-wook's Korean revenge fests.

Maybe neither Jason Smilovic, nor Guy Richie acolyte Paul McGuigan, who directed, is quite as clever or as richly inventive as Tarantino or Park, but this movie brings together a cast that was as well entertained as we are. Does being conned really matter? Is it really ever any other way with crime stories that take the trouble to keep us guessing to the end? Is Pulp Fiction anything but a complicated (and bizarrely silly) puzzle with amusing dialogue? Isn't The Usual Suspects one of the biggest movie con jobs of recent memory? And don't a lot of the most classic noirs explain everything in frenzied talky dialogue at the end, just like this movie?

In Lucky Number Slevin, we're definitely misled from the earliest scenes in which we think we know what's going on. And before it's over, we're going to have to re-view some flashbacks and learn that they didn't play out the way we'd been led to believe the first time.

Slevin is a story of mistaken identity (Slevin, Josh Hartnett, who people take for a shifty pal of his whose flat he's borrowing) and two warring crime lords The Boss (Morgan Freeman) and The Rabbi (Sir Ben Kingsley) holed up in facing towers. Slevin comes to stay at the big city flat of his pal; first, though, you've got this guy in a wheelchair, Bruce Willis with hair and porkpie hat, talking to a young man in an empty airport waiting area. He's talking about something called the "Kansas City switch." This movie is nothing but guys telling tricky tales like this, half joke, half explanation of stuff we haven't felt the need to have explained -- yet. McGuigan used Josh pretty well before in Wicker Park, but that didn't quite come off; it was an adaptation from a French movie that lost in translation. This time Josh is great, bumbling, bold, and charming, and adding a new edge to his smooth if limited repertoire of styles. This movie lets the "victim" (if he is that; who knows?) and the "sleuth," Lindsey (Lucy Liu), Josh's friend's neighbor and a ditsy but loveable coroner, have a real romance going on and takes the time to develop that romance both in and out of bed, a nice change from recent movies that are so intense about their nasty business that their sweetness gets short shrift.

So Slevin, Josh, gets mugged on the way from the airport to his friend's flat. Next he's in a towel, slung very low on his hips to show off his long torso, nursing a smashed-in nose and entertaining Lucy Liu, who's come over for a cup of sugar and stays on for sleuthing and romance -- because he gets his nose broken again by some of The Boss's goons, and Lucy Liu tries to figure out what's going on. What we learn is that The Rabbi has had The Boss's son killed by a professional assassin called Mr. Goodcat (Willis) and now The Boss wants to kill The Fairy (Yitzchok, Michael Rubenfeld), The Rabbi's son, and make Josh do it, because he thinks Josh is his shifty pal, who owes both gang lords a lot of money.

Josh, that is Slevin, handles himself with such aplomb when dragged around in nothing but the towel, that you wonder. He says he has a condition that makes him never worry about anything. He's witty, and completely unafraid. His character is one of Smilovic's greatest achievements and a feather in the cap for Hartnett, whose light comedic skills seen in things like The Virgin Suicides and Blow Dry needed this extra dash of ultra-violence to give them punch. Lucy Liu is quite equal to his panache and adds a bright improvisatory flutter to her character.

Freeman and Kingsley give intense, hammy performances that only actors of their caliber could carry off. Willis is adept though his part hasn't the range of his Butch in Pulp Fiction. Stanley Tucci comes into play as Brikowski, member of a cop team watching the gangsters who intervenes to try to find out who Slevin is. Who is this guy? They have no record of him. He doesn't exist for them.

It's impossible to describe the story from there on, because that's when the surprises really begin. Like all shaggy dog-con job crime stories, this one goes way back in time, and the guy in the wheelchair in the airport waiting room in Scene One alluded to something twenty years ago.

Contributing significantly to Lucky Number Slevin's smooth style are the flashy camera moves of cinematographer Peter Sova and psychedelic interiors by François Seguin that underline the hall-of-mirrors nature of the plot.

There may not be enough depth of conception or structure to make this the kind of cult movie you watch over and over to dissect; you'll watch it again, if you like it, for the zingy dialogue. Despite its unabashedly derivative nature, it has fresh twists, most notably its peculiar combination of revenge and romance. Hot or cold, revenge is always sweet but usually comes at a severe price. Not this time.

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