You may not yet have lost your ardor and respect 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 minirevolution look far too easy.
The fad seemed to have peaked a few years back (somewhere between 1996's 2 Days in the Valley and 2000's 4 Dogs Playing Poker), but overwritten, slang-fueled screenplays still impress the small-studio suits. And so we have Paul McGuigan's Lucky Number Slevin, a smug, derivative, but frequently witty crime cartoon set in a mythical New York 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. The noir vibe is a self-conscious affectation, and bloodshed is used for nervous laughs, because the movie alerts us in every scene often more than once that what we're experiencing is a banal toot, a meaningless and tractionless gag, and nothing more.
As spun by Scottish hotshot McGuigan (The Acid House, Gangster No. 1), always and still a Guy Ritchie drone among the Tarantinoites, the plot is standard-operating-procedure curlicue hyperbole, a one-up grift over The Usual Suspects that seems impossible to untangle until the film inevitably explains it all, laboriously, in speeches. What passes for screenplay structure, as with Spike Lee's Inside Man, is merely self-involved Erector Set rigging that signifies nothing but itself and in the end requires a dump of desperate exposition. We begin in a bus depot with a wheelchair-lounging Bruce Willis the smirking begins 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 is 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 megacrooks (Kingsley's is called "The Rabbi" because, everyone answers, he is a rabbi), Hartnett's boy-toy meets cute with flibbertigibbet coroner Lindsey (Lucy Liu). There isn't much of a good reason why the entire film couldn't have occupied itself with Hartnett and Liu dishing, tossing bons 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, as trivial as it is in intent, seems like it could sustain their pas de deux indefinitely; that would've been a movie with human substance.) 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 churning out contrivances, clichés, oversimplistic complexities, brutal stereotypes (a 2-D fool known only as The Fairy gets a bloody comeuppance), and pounding glibness. (Even the other characters grow tired of remarking about how relaxed and unthreatened Hartnett's wiseass seems, which is just one of a thousand clues the movie hands us in its obligatory secret über-narrative.) It's a waggish but empty vessel, with unengaged time enough for you to consider how Tarantino's babbling influence is at least preferable wittier and craftier to that of Joe Eszterhas or Shane Black.
Still, opening the gates on pros like Freeman, Kingsley, Liu, and Stanley Tucci (as a frustrated cop) is its own kind of high-time spectator sport. Cursed but ironically! with stomach-churning Sixties décor, Slevin might round off in the Park Chan-wook country of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy, but the lingering sense of it is as an amusement park for the actors, who are as infectiously overjoyed for the bouncy banter as preschoolers on Christmas morning. Like tired parents, we enjoy it vicariously, and whatever gifts we get are nothing impressive.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.