Writer: Jason Smilovic
Director: Paul McGuigan
An almost empty airport. A gloomy-looking young man. A man in a wheelchair appears. He has a hat that makes him look like Leonard Cohen and he says, “There was a time….”
There was a time when villains communicated by landline, when people lost money on horses not cryptos, and when the appearance on screen of Bruce Willis, even seemingly wheelchair-bound, meant something bad was going to happen. Films opened in cinemas. That was still the case in 2006, when Lucky Number Slevin was first released.
Even the first time around it had an archaic feel. For one thing, the story begins in the past, in 1979, with a nasty murder incident, filmed in a nostalgic yellow light. For another, the characters all seem to be types rather than fully realized people you might care about, which is just as well since few of them make it to the end. Only three of them are women, and of these only one has an interesting job.
In the present, Slevin, (Josh Hartnett) is the opposite of lucky. He arrives in New York city with a trail of misfortunes behind him, and immediately gets mugged. He finds himself alone in an apartment whose occupant has mysteriously disappeared. Owing to a case of mistaken identity he becomes embroiled in a double-crossing blood-bath. An impassive man called Smith turns up a lot, usually in a raincoat. There is a flirty girl across the hall. And nothing is quite what it seems.
Director Pail McGuigan makes the most of cinema’s powers of illusion. We watch a lift descend with a seemingly insignificant figure; we witness a shooting and don’t notice the faces; a telephone rings in a what looks like an empty hotel bedroom. Smith mentions “the Kansas City Shuffle… where everyone goes right, and you go left.” Adding to the sense that this is a period piece are the references to classic films; most of the light-hearted bedroom scene is devoted to a discussion of different James Bonds. (As Smith would say, ‘there was a time’ before Daniel Craig.)
McGuigan has assembled an excellent cast. As Smith, Bruce Willis is a looming, disturbing presence. He’s dangerously calm, and his features give little away. Yet he is able to make “I’m a world-class assassin” sound positively avuncular. Morgan Freeman is clearly having fun as ‘the Boss’, one of two ruthless mobsters and ex-friends. His character is autocratic and cruel, but gets some comic lines. When a discreet murder he’s ordered becomes a sensational massacre-with-arson he complains, “I told you to do a job. It wasn’t supposed to look like a job.” His counterpart is Shlomo, ‘the Rabbi’, a very obviously Jewish character who keeps a Torah next to his gun drawer. “There was a time” (1956) when a Swiss -Russian could play the King of Siam, but given recent controversies (for instance over Bradley Cooper playing Leonard Bernstein) it may be surprising to see Sir Ben Kingsley in this role. He was after all Indian enough to play Gandhi in the film of 1982. However, Kingsley has a long history of playing Jewish characters and if there is anything inauthentic about his performance it’s that he seems more a smooth-talking English villain than a tough American one. His expression at the end when he realizes the Boss is telling a dreadful truth is the only moving moment in the film. Josh Hartnett just about manages to make Slevin appealing – a sort of hapless highschooler, being a bit too cocky for his own good, and amusingly susceptible to a bit of flattery from his quickly acquired girlfriend. Lucy Liu as Lindsey looks alarmingly like Leslie Caron in Gigi – bouncing gracefully into the picture and talking with her mouth full in a daintily gamine way.
In spite of a few aphorisms from the two ageing bad guys the film isn’t trying to do more than entertain. It mostly succeeds. Jason Smilovic’s script is grimly witty. The long denouement is pretty satisfying. The romantic sub-plot is extremely unlikely, and so are the interiors: the villains lurk in vast penthouses done out in opulent ‘dictator style’; other scenes feature stylishly retro wallpaper. Even more unlikely is the fact that a ‘loser’ would be in possession of a very decent cockroach-free apartment in downtown Manhattan. You can ignore the confusing betting arrangements that set the story in motion; blood gets everywhere in the end. Neither a borrower nor a lender be.
Lucky Number Slevin is on digital platforms 18 September.