Media Your number’s up

A smart-alecky plot revolves around MacGuffins and mobsters

When a New York City crime boss called The Boss (Freeman) hires an out-of-town hit man to knock off his rival’s son, he instructs the assassin: “I need you to make it look like it ain’t what it is.” Screenwriter Jason Smilovic might have said the same to director Paul McGuigan. Until its conventional denouement, Lucky Number Slevin looks like it ain’t what it is. As the assassin, Mr. Goodkat aka Mr. Smith (Willis), explains to a stranger just before making him another victim, he specializes in the Kansas City shuffle, by which he means: “Everybody looks right; you move left.” This playful crime caper is overstocked with what Hitchcock called MacGuffins — cinematic feints that advance the storyline while distracting us momentarily from what is important.

Josh Hartnett gets behind and in front of several firearms in the smarter-than-thou supergroup crime caper Lucky Number Slevin.

At several points in the proceedings, someone explains what has been going on — moments before rendering the information useless by killing the listener. Because I do not wish to kill the movie experience, or the moviegoer, I will not explain too much of its convoluted plot. What you do need to know, though, is that The Boss tells a man who calls himself Kelevra Slevin (Hartnett) that Slevin owes him $96,000. The presence of toughs with guns convinces Slevin of the futility of trying to point out that The Boss must be confusing him with someone else. Slevin accepts an offer to retire the debt in exchange for killing the son of The Boss’s underworld adversary. The mission is made more challenging by the fact that the target, known to the homophobic Boss as Yitzchok the Fairy, is guarded by fierce former agents of the Mossad.

No sooner does Slevin exit The Boss’s penthouse apartment than he is summoned to a penthouse across the street. Its occupant is The Boss’s rival, a dissolute rabbi known as Schlomo (Kingsley). The ordained gangster, who, when not directing his own criminal empire, can be found at his desk reading Torah scrolls, claims that Slevin owes him $36,000. Though this, too, seems a case of mistaken identity or, at least, a clergyman’s clerical error, Slevin has 48 hours in which to come up with the cash. Stalking Slevin is bad Mr. Goodkat, who has made his own deal with both The Boss and Schlomo. Stalking them all is a shrewd police detective named Brikowski (Tucci). Also inserting herself into the story is a neighbor named Lindsey (Liu) who happens to be a coroner as well as perky and sexy.

Lucky Number Slevin

Dir. Paul McGuigan; writ. Jason Smilovic; feat. Josh Hartnett, Lucy Liu, Morgan Freeman, Ben Kingsley, Bruce Willis, Stanley Tucci (R)

From its preciously paronomastic title to its cloyingly clever but forgettable repartee, Lucky Number Slevin tries hard to be arch but succeeds mostly in being loopy. Smartly, briskly edited, it is a work of unrelenting exuberance. When Lindsey expresses amazement at Slevin’s apparent indifference to the dangers he faces, he replies that he is ataraxic. Many viewers will probably think they hear anorexic, but Slevin has certainly not attained a state of serenity, beyond any anxious striving, which is ataraxy, nor is he, ravenous for experience, especially anorexic. The mere suggestion of either anorexia or ataraxy is another example of the Kansas City shuffle, the film’s strategy of getting us to look in one direction while it moves in another.

Schlomo describes himself as “a bad man who doesn’t waste time worrying about what could have been.” The makers of Lucky Number Slevin don’t waste time worrying about motivation or plausibility. The characters exist only within the frame and the moment. It is as pointless to ask why The Boss and Schlomo, sublimely nonchalant about murdering other fathers’ sons, care at all about their own as it is to ask whether their auxiliary thugs would really be so stupid if they were not mugging for a camera.

Set in New York but shot in Montreal, this jaunty game of Kansas City shuffleboard at first seems, like The Usual Suspects or Memento, to offer up enough secrets to reward a second viewing. But I would not bet on it, any more than on the crooked horse race that, obscurely, sets the plot in motion. The agile makers of Lucky Number Slevin seem to be stretching, when all they are doing is patting themselves on the back.


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