Movie Review
"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 then disappears.

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 killed.

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. Nothing’s discarded.

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

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