Despite the title of the movie he lives in, Slevin (Josh Hartnett) is only partly lucky. He’s also a little ingenious, though that doesn’t become clear right away. Mostly, though, he’s Josh Hartnett, his hair scruffy, his torso bared, his eyes slightly squinty as he peers at the camera, inviting you to guess what he’s thinking.
Slevin first shows up in the movie he lives in at a train station. He’s slouched in a waiting room chair, and resists being pestered by a ratty-looking guy in a wheelchair, one Mr. Goodkat (Bruce Willis). This guy is actually accosting someone else, rambling on about one man who paid dearly after trying to cheat a criminal kingpin on a horse race, including a side-story about another man who was “tired of being a dog without a day.” These stories come together as a scam Goodkat calls the “Kansas City shuffle,” which he describes thusly: “It’s when everybody looks right and you go left.” Check. Lucky Number Slevin is a caper movie, with tricks and turns and characters who aren’t who they seem. And oh yes, men with families should most definitely not be playing this shuffle game.
The lengthy flashback sequence that illustrates the point ends in Goodkat’s own, present-time quick change, leaving behind a body (“You can’t have a Kansas City shuffle without a body,” he explains). And now young Slevin takes up his rightful place in the film named for him, as its center of action. He moves on from a flagrantly unfaithful girlfriend to a friend’s New York City apartment. No sooner is he settling in — shaving, showering, studying the broken nose he received previously — and he’s interrupted by the apartment dweller’s neighbor, Lindsey (Lucy Liu). “You’re not Nick!” she observes astutely. He comes right back with evidence of his legitimacy: “You’re not as tall as I thought you’d be,” meaning, he was expecting her in some fashion. And she comes back as well, with one of those lines that makes you worry the film is edging toward a tedious smugness, “I’m short for my height.” Ba-dum-bump.
Lindsey is one of those charming, chatty girls who show up in caper movies to borrow cups of sugar (literally, her stated mission here), and remind the hero how smart and heterosexual he is. That she happens to be a coroner who has some understanding of how dead bodies happen and doesn’t cringe at signs of violence (Slevin’s broken nose, for instance), only makes her more appealing in this universe. Populated primarily by men who speak tersely and commit vile acts without remorse, this universe is surely in need of someone else, say, someone who knows to look left when the shuffle is on. But Lindsey is only predictably peculiar, citing Columbo as her model for investigation once she determines to find “Nick,” now officially missing. She’s unbearably cute, but she’s stuck somewhere between first and second gear.
Lindsey’s go-nowhereness echoes that of the boys, though they do have more screen time and appear to cover more literal ground. The caper in which Slevin finds himself immersed has to do with a years-long war between two criminal kingpins, the Boss (Morgan Freeman) and Rabbi Schlomo (Ben Kingsley). They despise one another, share a history of violence and revenge, and live in stunning penthouse apartments facing one another across the street. Apparently the guy they think he is — this “Nick” — owes $96,000 in gambling money, and before you can say “North by Northwest,” Slevin is faced with impossible choices. The Boss invites Slevin-as-Nick to erase the debt by killing Schlomo’s gay son (retaliation for a previous murder).
Schlomo makes an opposite-seeming demand for money “Nick” owes him, following a bit of self-defining: “I live on both sides of the fence,” he smiles, “And the grass is always greener.” Slevin squints as it to understand, then agrees to terms, as if he’s going to make good on his debt. At the same time, Goodkat reappears as a professional killer, like Slevin working for both the Boss and Schlomo. And everyone is under the mostly misinformed scrutiny of muttery Detective Brikowski (Stanley Tucci).
The plot tangles up some more, by way of convoluted and sometimes cunning particulars. Lucky Number Slevin is a show-off movie in that sense, providing banter, plot turns, and visual style to burn, courtesy of cinematographer Peter Sova, writer Jason Smilovic, and director Paul McGuigan (whose previous overplotted project was Wicker Park, also starring Hartnett). Taking a cue from The Usual Suspects, the film anchors its abundant ingenuity in crisp, somewhat abstracted relationships, that is to say, impressive performances by respected actors (one payoff involves Schlomo and the Boss in the same room, at long last, such that Gandhi and Eddie Scrap-Iron Dupris might throw down verbally).
As cleverness as an end in itself grows tedious, however, Lucky Number Slevin feels a bit hoisted on its own petard. Amid all the boy stuff, Slevin periodically returns to Lindsey, who offers peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and pithy assessments of his situation (“I’d say you’re fucked”). She’s quick and appreciates Slevin’s Sean-Connery-as-Bond imitation. That is, she gets the artifice, likes movies, and doesn’t need to see all the pieces come together in the big “explanation” scene to feel she has a stake in what’s happening. The sign of Slevin’s luck and confirmation of his own rightness, Lindsey remains a cipher, drawn to her non-neighbor because that’s her function here. Next time, maybe she gets to live in her own movie.