Tarantino-type twists and turns

Staff WriterApril 7, 2006 

Josh Hartnett is the innocent who gets pulled into the mob's vortex, opposite Lucy Liu as a concerned neighbor.

Charlie Chaplin once entered a Charlie Chaplin look-alike contest in Monte Carlo -- and came in third.

That's just one of the many superfluous pop culture tidbits you get in "Lucky Number Slevin," another too-cool-for-school gangster epic that peppers its story with rat-a-tat dialogue, a self-referential plot and excessively quirky characters. Basically, it's another Tarantino rip-off.

Yup, you thought you were all done with those, didn't ya? You thought you were done with ironic, postmodern neo-noirs featuring characters with hip names like Mr. Goodkat, The Rabbi and The Boss? Yeah, I thought so, too. Let's plow through this one together, shall we?

Josh Hartnett is Slevin, first introduced to us in the bath towel he spends nearly the first half of the movie in. (You hear that, ladies?)

An out-of-town visitor crashing at his friend's place, Slevin suddenly gets thrust into the New York underworld. More specifically, into the midst of the quiet war between rival kingpins The Boss (Morgan Freeman) and The Rabbi (Sir Ben Kingsley). Each dispatches goons to pick up our clueless, smart-mouthed hero, believing he is his suddenly missing pal, who owes each of the mobsters a substantial amount of money. Since Slevin says he got mugged when he came into town, he's outta luck on convincing them he's not who they think he is.

"Slevin" gets convoluted real fast, as the gangsters call on Slevin to fulfill certain obligations or accept the dire consequences. You also have Bruce Willis lurking around as a silent-but-deadly hitman, Stanley Tucci as a bitter cop and Lucy Liu, uncharacteristically turning up the sunny charm, as the next-door neighbor who gets drawn into Slevin's predicament.

"Slevin" feels like the kind of Tarantino film Tarantino would have made if he had worked with David Lynch's longtime production designer, Patricia Norris. The rooms, halls and corridors are packed with such dense colors -- the arty wallpapers almost match the mood of whoever is on screen -- they make a more lasting impression than the scenery-chewing stars.

And that's another thing. Here's the million dollar question: How did director Paul McGuigan ("Gangster No. 1," "Wicker Park") assemble such a top-notch cast to star in a derivative pulp knockoff? Nearly half the cast has played more compelling versions of these characters in other movies. Wasn't Kingsley a lot scarier -- and a lot more intriguing -- when he did the mob thing in "Sexy Beast"?

The script, by TV scribe Jason Smilovic, gives them all plenty of chances to wrap their mouths around some fancy one-liners, $10 words and weighty monologues. Kingsley and Freeman each give a lengthy, climactic monologue, side by side, that has them looking like they're both auditioning for the lead in a Royal Shakespeare Company production of "Richard III." Surely, they had to say to themselves, "Do I need to appear in another one of these?" Better yet, they also might've asked themselves, "Do we need another one of these?"

The movie's last reel shockingly (or, should I say, sadly) reveals the taut, tense crime story the movie could have been, as a third-act twist flips the script from light to dark. You will actually become interested in what's going on. It seems that McGuigan switches here from emulating Tarantino to emulating Bryan Singer, circa "The Usual Suspects."

You may think I'm being too hard on "Slevin." After all, it is just another gangster film that lets you put your brain under your seat and enjoy. But don't you think this film is about 10 years too late? Man, between this and that "Dangerous Minds" carbon-copy "Take the Lead," you may feel like you're watching movies this weekend in 1996 instead of 2006.

Staff writer Craig D. Lindsey can be reached at 829-4760, clindsey@newsobserver.com or blogs.newsobserver.com/unclecrizzle.

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