Josh Hartnett gives his most assured performance yet in the tricky thriller "Lucky Number Sleven."
'Lucky Number Slevin" is a twisty little noir thriller in which neither the characters nor the viewers are ever sure who is calling the tune. At first its pretzel-twirl of flashbacks, stories within stories and whispered clues seem improbable and disorganized. But the deliciously devious film is suckering us along to a resolution that shifts our understanding of all that has gone before.
Like a card sharp who tells you just how he's going to fleece you and dares you to catch him, this movie snookered me blind and I loved it. Stay alert. A trip to the bathroom or the snack bar will leave you utterly lost when you return.
The serpentine story line begins dark and bloody, then veers into campy humor before coming full circle with a vengeance. In a 1978 preface that may mean nothing or quite a bit, we watch a hapless gambler get in over his head with gangsters. The hoods figure he's more valuable to them dead, as a warning to other deadbeats. To make the message triple clear, they send killers to take care of his wife and child, too.
The man telling us this story is an unreliable narrator, and the audience of "Lucky Number Slevin" is constantly teased about what "reality" is. Not everything presented onscreen actually occurs, and the Machiavellian criminals onscreen rarely tell the whole truth.
Adding to the perplexity, several cast members play against type. Josh Hartnett, typically known for heroic or nice guy roles, plays Slevin, a laid-back doofus visiting New York City who becomes caught up in a gangland war through mistaken identity. While staying in an apartment whose owner is out of town, he's mistaken for the tenant and hauled before the Boss (Morgan Freeman), a mobster with menacing good manners. He scoffs at Slevin's protests that he's the wrong man and insists that he settle a huge gambling debt by killing the son of a rival kingpin called the Rabbi (Ben Kingsley).
Slevin is scarcely out the Boss' door when the brooding Rabbi levels a shotgun at him, demanding payment of another big debt. Stanley Tucci plays a hard-nosed cop who wants to know why Slevin is shuttling between the city's top crime lords and isn't above throwing him out of a moving vehicle to encourage his cooperation. Bruce Willis lurks in the shadows as a coolly efficient hit man who knows more than he's telling.
Hartnett's Slevin at first seems like a lightweight comedy role, and he plays it with funny sass and verve. As the stakes rise, however, we realize that this is the most multilayered role of Hartnett's career, one that he handles with assurance. Slevin has a cocky, wisecracking way of expressing himself that gets him punched out regularly by the macho gangsters, but in hindsight his unguarded manner is completely appropriate. His impromptu fling with a lovelorn coroner (Lucy Liu) seems like a plot cliché from a weak romantic comedy until Jason Smilovic's puzzle-game screenplay pulls it all together.
The script is not so confident in its handling of the other characters. Flirty, scatterbrained Liu seems to be channeling "Sex and the City's" Sarah Jessica Parker. Kingsley and Freeman don't talk; they utter stilted speeches that aspire to hardboiled poetry but fall flat.
Director Paul McGuigan films the story with style to burn, and I wish he had burned some. McGuigan favors a herky-jerky camera style and slathers on visual pizzaz by giving every apartment in New York City obnoxious, retina-gouging Pop Art wallpaper. With more straightforward technique and less offhand weirdness, he'd have strengthened the film.
Still, "Lucky Number Slevin" is an ingenious maze that viewers will enjoy getting lost in. It's in the rare category of movies I immediately wanted to see again.
*** out of four stars
The setup: An ineffectual tourist (Josh Hartnett) is drawn into a feud between New York's top mobsters (Morgan Freeman and Ben Kingsley).
What works: Almost nothing is as simple as it seems in this ingeniously constructed con game.
What doesn't: The secondary characters are written without much depth.
Great scene: There's a key exchange hidden in some idle banter between Hartnett and Lucy Liu about James Bond movies. See if you can spot it.
Rating: R for strong violence, sexuality and language.
Colin Covert 612-673-7186