Lucky Number Slevin

Opens at Metro and others, Fri., April 7. Rated R. 109 minutes.

Slevin is a name shared by two high-risk creatures in Paul McGuigan's agreeably convoluted crime thriller: a sure-thing racehorse from a flashback to the bygone Damon Runyon–esque golden age of gambling; and a cocky modern kid (Josh Hartnett) who walks into a friend's apartment in New York only to discover that the guy has mysteriously vanished.

He tries to explain this to Lindsey, the remarkably coquettish neighbor. (Here Lucy Liu has the first role that shows what she's really like in person, as I know from hanging out on the set of Ally McBeal: not a racist caricature of a hard chick like her TV character Ling, but flirtatious, bubbly, teasing, inclined to sit in people's laps even when they're standing up.) Only Lindsey doubts Slevin is really the missing guy's friend. He claims he lost his ID when mugged on the street (out-of-towner!), so he can't prove anything. Things get more pretzeled when a couple thugs bust in, looking for missing moolah. Will Slevin be their scapegoat?

Slevin is given the chance to repay his friend's debt by the thugs' boss—literally called "the Boss," and played by Morgan Freeman, a very bossy man and great for this role. But here's the rub, or the rub-out: Slevin has to kill the son of the town's other crime boss, Schlomo (Ben Kingsley, also great and having a fun time facing off with Freeman, like the Dennis Hopper–Christopher Walken acting duel in True Romance).

If you've ever seen a switcheroo neo-noir, you'll know that Schlomo soon makes Slevin an offer he can't refuse. And here's a third twist: There's another crime mastermind involved in the tense maneuvering, a bad cat named Goodkat (Bruce Willis, trying to be a tougher man of fewer words than all his previous ones, as hardboiled as a bald 12-minute egg).

Slevin's in a tight spot, with only the quizzical cutie Lindsey (we hope) on his side. (How handy that, when cadavers start piling up, she turns out to be a coroner!) No coincidence is too outrageous for Lucky's punkishly puckish sensibility, no echo of previous films (including 12 Monkeys) too noisy. There's an almost Coen brothers–style whimsy afoot, such as when the Boss and Schlomo turn out to be ensconced in posh penthouse lairs directly across the street from each another, trapped by paranoia and glaring back and forth.

The payoff more or less pays off. It's coherent, anyway, which lots of gangster pictures no longer even attempt. Although the air of whimsy deprives it of a certain sustaining suspense. When there's a case of mistaken identity in Hitchcock, it can be funny and still contain a genuine sense of panic; even a gimmicky movie like The Usual Suspects gets much of its power from the authentically sinister foundation lurking beneath the jokes. By comparison, Lucky is more of an entertaining trifle, and the actors run through their paces like thoroughbreds.

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