The Perfect April Movie

'Lucky Number Slevin' has so much style that even an expository monologue can't ruin it

I love noir. You could lock me naked in a walk-in freezer, and if there was a DVD player and a stack of films based on James M. Cain novels, I would sit without complaint until my man-parts were as icy and dead as the look in Katie Holmes' eyes.

So I got a kick out of neo-noir Lucky Number Slevin. It's basically an exercise in cleverness and contrived dialogue, and even though the grand finale is deeply weakened by being played out in a long monologue, it's nonetheless the kind of satisfying fun that you can't get without hot dames, cold stiffs and a creeping revenge that rises out of the past, rings the bell twice and leaves a touch of evil in its wake.

Slevin is all form and no content, which is just right for its noir aesthetic. The star of the film may well be the wallpaper, which in every scene is a perfect re-creation of some 1970s hippie-deco geometric absurdity in silver and brown.

But the wallpaper is ably backed up by Bruce Willis, Josh Hartnett, Ben Kingsley, Morgan Freeman and Lucy Liu, all of whom would be horrible if their job descriptions had called for naturalism.

But this is noir and not nature, so each one's oddity is well-marked for the kind of one-note characters indicative of the genre. Willis plays that guy Bruce Willis plays, which is to say an avuncular figure who, nonetheless, looks like he'd be fully capable of wasting some poor mug without shedding a tear.

Hartnett's character is the lead, and his one note is a clear-blue blast from a cucumber-cool trumpet. He plays Slevin, a man who, in keeping with the noir formula, winds up in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Slevin finds himself mistaken for a low-life gambler named Nick Fisher who owes debts New York City's two leading crime lords: The Boss (Freeman) and The Boss' arch nemesis, The Rabbi (Kingsley). The Boss wants Slevin to kill The Rabbi's son; The Rabbi wants Slevin to pay him $30,000; and the mysterious super-assassin Mr. Goodkat (Willis) seems to be pulling all the strings.

The plot, though, is nothing but twists and turns, so any excess information would count as spoilers. Needless to say, not only is all not what it seems, but what it seems it should seem to be isn't what it is at all.

However, you should be able to figure out a few major secrets early on. There's a murder that occurs while the opening credits are still rolling, and then another one a few minutes later, and in between is a grisly tale of gambling gone bad that clearly is going to shape the entire narrative. The clues dropped there are as clear as the lies on Dick Cheney's face, but much of the plot is a convoluted mix of the mysterious and the unlikely.

Which is both the strength and weakness of the film. By the end, so many things need to be explained that writer Jason Smilovic is left with little choice but to lay it all out in an extended bout of expository monologue.

Whatever. By then, so much stylishness and clever dialogue has passed that I was willing to forgive the indiscretion of writing more plot than could be played out in the action.

Plus, cinematographer Peter Sova so perfectly composes every shot that even if nothing were happening, Slevin would be as enchanting as a field full of fairies. He's helped along immeasurably by the '70s décor, but his sense of balance in positioning the figures and effects makes every shot look like a movie poster.

And he has the figure of Lucy Liu to work with, who looks good even when she's being shot by stray bullets, so when Sova shoots her, she really stands out. She provides a bright, bubbly center to this otherwise comically grim tale. Plus, it's nice to see a romantic female lead who's 10 years older than the male lead, but no one makes a big deal about her getting her groove back.

Altogether, Slevin is a perfect film for this time of year. The studios are done releasing potential OscarTM winners until next September, and they won't start with the summer blockbusters until May, so this is the best time for a movie that's both unpretentious enough to not feature gay rodeo clowns in a multi-racial car crash, and not loud and stupid enough to have substituted exploding face makeup for dialogue, plot and character. Instead, Slevin is clever, amoral and artistic, just like our glorious U.S. foreign policy (except for the clever and artistic part.)

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