"Lucky Number Slevin"
by Bill Gallagher
At what point do you just give up on a movie?
What’s it take to make you walk out of the theater or, as is much more likely these days,
hit STOP then EJECT and put the DVD back in the case and briefly consider asking for a
refund? (I remember in the days before DVDs that it was never a good sign when an un-
rewound tape you just rented had been stopped long before the final scene.)
The movie that makes me raise this question of videus interruptus is a hip, new, very
violent crime concoction called “Lucky Number Slevin.” If you go to the theater to see it
or rent it in a few months and you start getting anxious and twitchy and think you should
bail out, don’t. Hang in there. If you leave, you’ll miss out on one of the more satisfying
plot twists since “The Usual Suspects” had us wondering how we missed that whole
Verbal Kint thing.
No way am I going to spoil the fun, but trust me. You will be sorely tempted to give up
on “Slevin” before the payoff. It’s not easy for a screenwriter to weave a multi-character
action saga while keeping the big surprise under wraps. In this case, Jason Smilovic did
his best to help us connect the dots before the real deal goes down. His dilemma is: You
can’t tell the audience too much or they’ll figure out what’s going on too soon. But by not
telling you very much, “Slevin” runs the risk of losing you. Give it time. He’s worked
hard on this; the least you can do is find out where he’s going. Not as a favor to Smilovic,
but so you can smile the smile of a moviegoer who’s just been conned...and loved it.
He can be thankful for some fine performances from a cast of proven veterans to keep us
around. First, there’s Bruce Willis appearing out of nowhere to engage a man in a
terminal in an obscure, rambling conversation that contains hidden clues about what’s to
come. I’m a Willis fan. He’s been playing the same character for years—sweet but
wounded, funny but feral, delightful but deadly—and seeing him do so is one of life’s
guilty pleasures. He dispatches the young man in the terminal quite efficiently and
Josh Hartnett as Slevin is up next, as the man mistaken for a friend who owes the wrong
people lots of money. Director Paul McGuigan obviously has been watching his Alfred
Hitchcock movies. What’s a poor boy to do when men with bad intentions won’t believe
he’s not who they think he is? There’s even a reference later to the classic “wrong man”
movie, “North by Northwest.” Hartnett is no Cary Grant. In fact, there will never be
another Cary Grant. But for this movie’s purposes, Hartnett (“Pearl Harbor,” “Black
Hawk Down”) will do.
His encounter with Morgan Freeman as The Boss juices the plot. He may not be who
they’re looking for, but he has to come up with the money owed to The Boss or he’ll pay
an even steeper price. It’s nice to see Freeman play a character other than the wise, stoic sidekick to Clint Eastwood (in “Million Dollar Baby”). And when it turns out his rival is
a rabbi, played by Ben Kingsley, we’re in for a real treat. They live in New York
penthouses directly across the street from each other so they can keep an eye on each
other. Such is their rivalry that if either man ventures out of his celestial cell, he’ll be
These guys play for keeps. The trail of attacks and reprisals leading up to the entrance of
Slevin make his debts seem like small potatoes. That’s one of the problems with the
plotting of “Lucky Number Slevin.” Call it a disproportionality in the punishment meted
out. Misdemeanors seem to merit the death penalty from these characters. Lots of people
die. It’s like Alfred Hitchcock meets Quentin Tarantino.
But in the end, you’ll realize that every plot point has a purpose. Willis’ rambling
monologue in the terminal and his shaggy dog story about a poor SOB who lost
everything at Aqueduct racetrack merit close attention. Everything’s connected.
Director McGuigan is a Scot without much of a track record. This is a pretty good
indication of his sure hand. He’s got a plot that could have easily crossed the line from
complex to convoluted. His camera work is creative without coming off as clever for
clever’s sake. The juxtaposition of the lofty towers of The Boss and the rabbi contrasts
nicely with the battles being fought by their charges down on the street. There’s a sweet
scene near the end that puts Freeman and Kingsley in very close contact looking at the
end of the game. It lasts nine minutes and involves nothing more than the dialogue of
reckoning for these two men and a constantly moving camera. Well done.
Besides a satisfying denouement, there are two great lines from Willis that will make it
worth your while to hang in there. When asked about a virtual certainty he responds,
“Sure thing? No such thing. Charlie Chaplin entered a Charlie Chaplin look-alike contest
in Monte Carlo and came in third.” Then at the end when one of the other characters (no
fair telling you which one) expresses shock that Willis could have found him, he says,
“I’m a world-class assassin, f#%&head!”
How ‘bout those Oscars?!
I’ve always made it a point not to miss even a minute of the Oscars telecast. Alas, I think
I’ve been disabused of that obligation with the latest Academy Awards show. It’s not that
Jon Stewart wasn’t a winning host—I thought he did a pretty good job. It’s just that I feel
I’ve already heard every acceptance speech given. There were no surprises. The suspense
about to whom the Oscar would go couldn’t make up for the banality of what the winners
had to say. And they’ve already said it at all the other award shows. So long, Oscar, it’s
been good to know you.
Stephen Farber recently published a biting piece in the Los Angeles Times titled, “Ten
Films That Give Oscar a Bad Name.” Without stealing the details, here’s his list of
movies awarded the Oscar for best picture that shouldn’t have been:
“The Greatest Show on Earth” (1952), “Around the World in 80 Days” (1956), “The
Great Ziegfeld” (1936), “Ben-Hur” (1959), “The English Patient” (1996), “Forrest
Gump” (1994), “You Can’t Take It with You” (1938), “Rocky” (1976), “American
Beauty” (1999), and…the envelope please… “Crash” (2005).
Bill Gallagher is the News Director of AM 860 KPAM – the Talk Station. He also writes
the monthly Movie Column for BrainstormNW.
BrainstormNW - April 2006