I'M CAUGHT UP in a crisis of service here: Should I give you a solid idea of what Lucky Number Slevin is about, or should I stay away from spoiling its labyrinthine twists? This is something I've been stuck on since seeing the film—and interviewing its screenwriter, Jason Smilovic, last month at the Heathman Hotel just compounded that.
To discuss anything past Slevin's first half hour is to lay waste to Smilovic's well-built structure. This is a film that deals with mistaken identity and, like North by Northwest, the beauty is in its surprises. After some opening ultra-violence, the film begins with Bruce Willis telling a story which Smilovic says came from something he'd heard years ago: "A friend of mine told me a story about a guy he'd heard about that had borrowed money from everyone he knew in the world—every family member, relation, friend, and he took that money and he bet the whole sum of it on a fixed horserace, and the racehorse died in the starting gate. I started to obsess on what the aftermath could have been and trying to fill the void and chronology, and the rest of Slevin dovetailed from that story."
But the character of Slevin (played in the film by Josh Hartnett) began long before that. Smilovic had been tinkering with him for more than a decade, originally writing Slevin as a doomed, unlucky guy "who, independent of capability or talent, was always just staring up at the middle finger of God." But something was wrong—something in Slevin's character kept tossing wrenches into whatever Smilovic tried to write. It was Slevin's "unassailable sense of cool" that threw Smilovic for a loop. As hell rained down on him, Slevin was forever unruffled; no matter how Smilovic tried to rewrite it, he felt an unimpeachable (and kind of illogical) pull toward developing Slevin's Candide-ish optimism. So he kept at him for years, cutting and revising full-time until Slevin became what he is now—a lead character you can't quite figure out.
Smilovic says all the film's characters underwent major and constant reworking—some right up until he met the actors and chameleoned his characters to feed off their intrinsic qualities. And therein spoilers lay like landmines, so we'll let that one hang.
So, besides that, I will tell you nothing. And the reason I'm hot on keeping the plot twists secret is that when they come, they snap like wet towels to the face—Lucky Number Slevin is a constant series of smacks, contoured around the kind of smart, funny screenwriting action films and thrillers usually don't employ. (Unless you're Snatch or Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, and movies like that are too stylized to be truly great.) Lucky Number Slevin is great—not because it's deep or artsy, but because it delivers and does so intelligently; Bruce Willis is enough of a believable badass you forget he's a douche in real life; Lucy Liu isn't as over-the-top as she's been in the past; Ben Kingsley and Morgan Freeman are perfect as crime bosses, but they have range—they're conflicted, human, not cardboard vaudeville villains or one-sided murder machines.
At Slevin's press screening, some old, sharky, bitter critic held court in the lobby with a couple younger reviewers, sermoning something like this: "Soooo, word around the Hollywood elite campfire is this'll be thee role that makes Hartnett a leading man, a Brad Pitt instead of a Matthew McConaughey. He's got maaaybe five years in him if this one doesn't do it, and then he's through. He's over. Hollywood'll throw him out like yesterday's trash, and I say good riddance. Even the battleship was a better actor than him in Pearl Harbor."
I sat on the lobby bench with my giant popcorn bucket in my lap and silently bored holes through his evil-eyed face with silent, invisible, "Way to sap the fun out of movies, you gross, cynical, overanalyzing cocksucker" mental laser blasts. But after seeing the film, I realized the man did touch some truth. This could indeed be a good career move for Hartnett—crowds like to be pleased and cheer for a good hero, and no one wants to have their intelligence insulted, or their movie experience slashed up with product placement and emotional manipulation. Lucky Number Slevin understands this, and it's all payoff and thrills. So, there's your review. I hope I told you nothing whatsoever.