3 stars (out of four)
You've probably never heard of the Kansas City Shuffle, unless you're an aficionado of the great K.C. jazzmen Bennie Moten and Count Basie. But for the rest of you, the gap is because you haven't seen "Lucky Number Slevin" yet.
Directed by flashy Scottish moviemaker Paul McGuigan ("Gangster No. 1," "The Reckoning") and written by Jason Smilovic, "Slevin" is a post-Quentin Tarantino thriller with some of Q.T.'s saucy attitude and killer style, along with a colorful gambling backdrop and an unusually fine cast, including Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, Ben Kingsley, Stanley Tucci, Lucy Liu and, as beleaguered protagonist Slevin, Josh Hartnett. Thanks to all of them, it's murderously slick and fast, yet also whip-smart and as witty as a good satire.
Willis, looking grimly companionable as an initially wheelchair-riding chap named Goldkat, is the guy who establishes the movie's strategy of misdirection and deadly sleight of hand. Goldkat demonstrates the aforementioned Kansas City Shuffle ("Look to the left; look to the right ...") in an airport waiting area to a nameless young guy (Sam Jaeger) who learns the lesson fast. It's a nifty prelude for the entire movie, and Goldkat's flashback, a racetrack mini-thriller a bit reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick's "The Killing," is an engrossing set piece in a picture that's full of them. Even if you don't like "Slevin," you probably won't be able to outguess or predict it.
Hartnett's Slevin pops up when we've had a doozy of a revenge setup and enough plot for most other current movie thrillers. Slevin turns out to be a wisecracking guy in the wrong place at the wrong time, alone in the apartment of a friend, Nick Fisher, who owes a bundle to an outwardly amiable ganglord, The Boss (Morgan Freeman), not known for patience or forgiveness. Hauled out of Fisher's apartment in his post-shower towel by two word-challenged thugs (amusingly played by Dorian Missick and Mykelti Williamson), despite his protestations that he's really somebody else, the unlucky Slevin is instantly plunged into a Hitchcockian "Wrong Man" fix -- and the movie, referential to a fault, salutes Hitch with dialogue about the wrong man in "North by Northwest," Cary Grant.
Soon, The Boss has offered to retire Fisher's debt if Slevin executes a hit on The Boss' deadliest rival, The Rabbi (Kingsley), a Manhattan neighbor with a pious demeanor and a prodigal gay son who proves too susceptible to Slevin.
Making the rival ganglords black and Jewish, throwing in a gay son, and casting such a high-prestige pair as Freeman and Kingsley, creates the start of what could be a sly social point about Manhattan's elite culture and politics, but the movie doesn't develop it much. Freeman and Kingsley are so good, though, that you probably won't mind. There's also a juicy "His Girl Friday"-style love interest for Slevin in Lucy Liu as Lindsey, a knockout coroner's assistant who lives down the hall and is the fastest talker in a movie full of rapid speechifying. Stanley Tucci and Danny Aiello add flavor and grit as Brikowski, a brutal cop shadowing the ganglords, and Roth, a really unfortunate bookie. As for Hartnett, he has never been this good -- though, of course, he has had some bad arenas ("Pearl Harbor," "Here on Earth" and the McGuigan-directed "Wicker Park").
Because "Lucky Number Slevin" has a truly clever plot, it would be a cheat to reveal more. Like Tarantino's thrillers, it's a movie by a director who knows how to get our attention and a writer with a knack for smart-aleck dialogue. It's also violent, cynical and sometimes a little nasty. Yet the style redeems it. Instead of repelling us, this often gaudily clever movie keeps sucking us in, establishing a series of games that -- like the triple-reverse twists in "Pulp Fiction" or "The Usual Suspects" -- are fun to watch and never quite what they seem.
I enjoyed it pretty much all the way, both for its looks and brains. McGuigan and Smilovic get a mix of menace and wit and sustain it to the end; just when you think you have everything figured out, their show keeps springing more surprises.
That's, of course, what we liked about the classic film noirs, that blend of sleazy urban violence and crime with verbal/visual high style. "Lucky Number Slevin" gives the equivalent. The talk is witty, the twists are ingenious, the look and the mood are drop-dead. And, in the end, even if you feel for a moment that the movie has dealt you a Kansas City Shuffle, you shouldn't feel cheated.
'Lucky Number Slevin'
Directed by Paul McGuigan; written by Jason Smilovic; photographed by Peter Sova; edited by Andrew Hulme; production designed by Francois Seguin; music by J. Ralph; produced by Chris Roberts, Christopher Eberts, Kia Jam, Anthony Rhulen, Robert Kravis and Tyler Mitchell. An MGM release of a Weinstein Co. presentation; opens Friday, April 7. Running time: 1:50. MPAA rating: R (strong violence, sexuality and language).
Slevin -- Josh Hartnett
Goodkat -- Bruce Willis
Lindsey -- Lucy Liu
The Boss -- Morgan Freeman
The Rabbi -- Ben Kingsley
Brikowski -- Stanley Tucci
Roth -- Danny AielloCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun