Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Next Decent Set Of Suspects Arrive In Lucky Number Slevin!

The Good: Funny, Well-written, Clever, Decent characters, Good acting
The Bad: Minor formulaic aspects
The Basics: When Slevin assumes the debt of a friend and is charged with killing a gangster's son, he finds himself caught between two gangs, an assassin and law enforcement.

Don't you hate reviews of crime films that continue to compare the criminal-de-jour flick to The Usual Suspects? I mean, for the past fifteen years, reviewers have been complaining about crime movies that simply aren't living up to being the next The Usual Suspects (reviewed here!) or (for those who enjoyed it) the next Reservoir Dogs (reviewed here!). With Lucky Number Slevin, the complaining stops. This is the film fans of The Usual Suspects have been waiting for, not because it is as good or as original as The Usual Suspects, but rather because Lucky Number Slevin creates a story that is as distinctive and clever in its own right. It's a solid movie and a pleasure to watch.

Following a series of killings, culminating in the murder of The Boss's son, a young man is abducted by thugs of The Boss. Mistaken for his friend Nick, Slevin finds himself in the unenviable position of owing The Boss $96,000, a debt the Boss wants him to pay off by killing the son of a rival gangster, The Rabbi. The Rabbi, for his part, wants several thousands of dollars himself and Slevin finds himself bouncing between The Boss, The Rabbi, and local law enforcement.

As Slevin is played like a pawn, he befriends Lindsey, a neighbor across the hall in the building Slevin is staying at. Lindsey discovers there is another player in the mix, Smith, who appears to be a professional assassin working for both The Rabbi and The Boss. Pressured to do their bidding, Slevin decides to play the game and see where it goes.

And the viewer, while not surprised by much in the movie, is taken for a rather enjoyable ride. In fact, most of the problems with Lucky Number Slevin involve our perceptions and the desire for this movie to defy all conventions. Thus, Slevin's relationship with Lindsey is somewhat disappointing and formulaic. The addition of Brikowski, the lead detective monitoring The Rabbi and The Boss, also feels somewhat formulaic, like one cannot have a crime movie without paying token service to law enforcement.

The former critique, though, is redeemable in the movie's resolution. Writer Jason Smilovic has a keen ear for dialogue and a clever ability to create characters that make sense. Thus, the ultimate resolution to the Slevin/Lindsey relationship somewhat defies our expectations, but does it in a way that fits perfectly with the characters as they are established. It's a brilliant twist that makes the film cohesive and ultimately work beyond the depth of a simple crime flick.

The dialogue works wonderfully and Lucky Number Slevin is funny in a number of places simply for the rhythm of the dialogue and its delivery. So, for example, Slevin and Lindsey both ask, "Why is he called 'The Rabbi?'" to be responded with, "He's a Rabbi." and the joke works even though we hear it twice. That takes some excellent writing, but it also puts pressure on the director to play the scenes in a way that does not feel repetitive. Director Paul McGuigan succeeds.

To be fair, McGuigan is playing with a stacked deck. Lucky Number Slevin has an impressive cast and this director seems to know how to use them. So, while Bryan Singer took (mostly) unknown or smaller-time actors and used them to create a realism in The Usual Suspects, McGuigan takes established actors of impressive caliber and places them in roles where they are able to flex their dramatic muscles.

Morgan Freeman and Sir Ben Kingsley play The Boss and The Rabbi, respectively. Freeman - who was simply a "type" in Dreamcatcher - reminds us of the distinctive strengths he has as an actor to infuse character into his characters. Freeman takes fast lines and adds to them a light in his eye, a coldness of tone or the barest hint of a smile as appropriate to make The Boss come alive. Kingsley brings a rigid dignity to almost every role he takes and as The Rabbi, he is articulate and clever with the ability to connote - and late in the film, express - a deep wound. He is a master and his presence makes the film pop.

Despite my issues with Lindsey in the film as a type - i.e. we all need a romantic subplot, apparently - I cannot take issue with Lucy Liu, who plays her. Liu is funny and smart, keeping the viewer watching her. After years of watching her play cold on Ally McBeal, it is refreshing to see her playing a character who is so alive, interested and connected in Lucky Number Slevin. Bruce Willis, who plays "Smith," is playing a role we've seen him in before. This is essentially the same role he played in "The Whole Nine Yards," so he is not as noteworthy as he could be, though he does the role well.

It is Josh Hartnett who has to carry the film as Slevin. I'm not into a lot of the popular, young actors, but I have to say Hartnett pulls off the acting challenges of Slevin amazingly well. Slevin has to convince the audience who he is and of his indifference to being the victim of a mistaken identity. Hartnett does that. So, while the plot might be somewhat predictable and it does not take much to realize that Slevin is going to be surrounded by a bloodbath, Hartnett proceeds with the story with the convincing portrayal needed to make the viewer suspend our disbelief to all that is happening around him.

Lucky Number Slevin is satisfying, even if it is not surprising. In fact, one of the strengths is that it is not necessarily attempting to be clever. The opening of the movie establishes the story as a potential tale of vengeance and as it plays out, the chips fall in ways that make sense and are entertaining. So, the movie does not hinge on the end reversal, it becomes a movie where the viewer takes a certain amount of pleasure in watching a wrong be revenged in a methodical, sensible - if criminal - way. It's enough to make one want to watch this a few times and it's enough to make a reviewer stop complaining about how there's nothing in the genre to compare with The Usual Suspects.

For other films featuring Morgan Freeman, please check out my reviews of:
The Dark Knight
War Of The Worlds
Batman Begins
Million Dollar Baby
Driving Miss Daisy


For other movie reviews, be sure to visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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