You may still retain your ardor and respect, as I have, for the pressure-point hammerblow Quentin Tarantino executed on American movies, but it’s difficult at this late date not to view him as an imperative inoculation with unfortunate side effects: gas, bloating, dizziness, delusions of cleverness. Imitators flock when coolness seems an Everyman’s right, and because QT’s achievement is 75 percent chutzpah, film-geek craziness, and attitude (the kind that allows your characters to ramble for many script pages about TV shows and cereals), he made his mini-revolution look far too easy. The fad seemed to have peaked a few years back, but overwritten, slang-dictionary-fueled screenplays can still impress the dependie suits, and so we have Paul McGuigan’s Lucky Number Slevin, a smug, derivative, but frequently witty crime cartoon set in a mythical city where dueling underworld kingpins (Morgan Freeman and Ben Kingsley) face each other in sealed towers, the chasm between them traversed by unimpressive digital swoops.
As spun by McGuigan (Gangster Number 1), always and still a Guy Ritchie drone among Tarantinoites, the plot is standard-operating-procedure curlicue hyperbole, a one-up-man grift over The Usual Suspects that seems impossible to untangle until the film explains it all, laboriously, in speeches. We begin with a wheelchair-lounging Bruce Willis in a bus depot—the smirking starts early and does not subside—regaling a barely interested schlub with backstory (racetrack, bad luck, murder), and then leap to the present, where Slevin (an amiable Josh Hartnett) comes from out of town and is mistaken for his deadbeat friend, who’s in gambling hock to both of the towered bosses. Before the idiosyncratically moronic henchmen show up, and before Slevin sits down for expansive, sparring, jovial exchanges with the respective mega-crooks (Kingsley’s is called “The Rabbi,” because, everyone answers, he is a rabbi), he meets cute with flibbertigibbet coroner Lindsey (Lucy Liu). There isn’t much reason why the entire film couldn’t have occupied itself with Hartnett and Liu dishing, tossing bon mots, making bedroom eyes in a cheap apartment kitchen, and just being as bubbly together as a truckload of canned champagne (the noir-banter screenplay by Jason Smilovic seems like it could sustain their pas de deux indefinitely). Even a distended discussion of Bond movies can be forgiven amid the barely repressed giggles.
But then the story mechanics must begin locking gears and factorying out contrivances, clichés, oversimplistic complexities, pounding glibness, and brutal stereotypes (a 2-D fool known only as The Fairy gets a bloody comeuppance). Even the other characters grow tired of remarking on how relaxed and unthreatened Hartnett’s wiseass seems, which is just one of a thousand clues to the movie’s obligatory secret über-narrative. It’s a waggish but empty vessel, with time enough for you to consider how Tarantino’s babbling influence is at least preferable to Joe Eszterhas’s or Shane Black’s. Cursed—but ironically!—with stomach-churning ’60s decor, Slevin might round off in Park Chanwook country, but the lingering sense of it is as an amusement park for the actors, who are as infectiously overjoyed for the bouncy badinage as preschoolers on Christmas morning. Like tired parents, our enjoyment is primarily vicarious.