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Lucky Number Slevin (5/10)

by Tony Medley

Notwithstanding a stellar cast including Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, and Ben Kingsley, and an intriguing story with a twist, the range-challenged Josh Hartnett mutters and smiles his way through what could have been a complicated, interesting, albeit cold-bloodedly violent, thriller. Alas, Hartnett’s ineptitude is exacerbated by the script (Jason Milovic) and directing (Paul McGuigan). Here’s just a sample of the Not-Ready-For-The-Algonquin-Round-Table repartee: A bad guy, trying to get Slevin (Hartnett) to go along with an evil action, tells him to, “play ball, kid,” and Slevin replies, “Oh, really? Do you think I’m tall enough?”

Slevin is mistakenly kidnapped and forced into becoming a hit man for The Boss (Freeman), who wants him to kill the son of The Rabbi (Kingsley) in revenge for the murder of The Boss’s son, whom The Boss thinks was rubbed out by The Rabbi. Thus begins a twisted tale that is so violent and with an ending so perverse that it fits in well with current Hollywood morality.

Slevin seems like he’s in a pickle, but he also does not seem at all perturbed. Along the way he falls for Lindsey (Lucy Liu), who is his friend’s next door neighbor.

Although Smilovic’s basic story is a good one, how he translates it through the words he has his characters utter is less than compelling. Even Bruce Willis, who plays a cold-blooded hit man, Mr. Goodkat, is unable to overcome the material. If only the actors could have ameliorated Smilovic’s dialogue by taking some responsibility and control. But there was no ad-libbing on this shoot. Everyone said exactly what was written for them.

The problem isn’t only that Hartnett is woefully inadequate and that the dialogue is so maddeningly short of being clever. A lot of the blame must be borne by director McGuigan, who was actually eager to re-team with Josh because they had formed a close working relationship during the filming of “Wicker Park” (2004). McGuigan did the same thing here that he did in “Wicker Park.” He takes the germ of a good idea, an idea that could have been transformed into a wonderfully entertaining movie, and instead produced something that falls short.

Worse than the production itself, are the macabre ending and the fact that its resolution is so morally reprehensible that it destroys what is an interesting story. This film not only winks at the inhumanity of Mr. Goodkat, a sociopathic assassin, making him seem caring and compassionate, a ludicrous proposition, it justifies vigilante justice and brutal, cold-blooded vengeance murder.

In Hollywood’s golden years, movies generally had virtuous endings. The bad guys got it in the end, but the resolutions were principled. This film is antithetical. That might explain why those years are considered golden and these years, epitomized by films like Slevin, which are marked by substantial declines in attendance, are not. No matter whether you enjoy this movie or not, I can’t imagine anyone with any kind of moral compass walking out of it and not feeling at least vaguely uncomfortable with what they’ve just seen.

March 30, 2006