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‘Lucky Number Slevin’ ambitious but flawed

Film has good performances, but is hampered by a preposterous script

“Lucky Number Slevin” is being promoted as a “comic thriller.” Josh Hartnett certainly plays it that way during his early scenes, wearing a towel like a sarong and flirting with Lucy Liu. He’s rarely seemed so light and likable, though he’s eventually required to darken the mood.

Hartnett’s character is named Slevin, but he’s been mugged and mistaken for Nick, an old friend whose apartment he’s using to shower. In no time, nearly everyone is mistaking him for Nick, whose identity remains a mystery until the twisty finale.

If the situation recalls Cary Grant’s dilemma in Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest,” Jason Smilovic’s aggressively post-modern script is only too happy to point out the similarities. When a Jewish gangster known as The Rabbi (Ben Kingsley) starts reminiscing about Hitchcock, Grant and Eva Marie Saint, Slevin cuts him off with “I know this movie.”

As it turns out, “Lucky Number Slevin” is not that movie. A series of  preposterous plot twists lend an increasingly sombre tone to the story, which almost succeeds in transforming itself into classic Greek tragedy. The comic-thriller touches vanish as the movie suddenly announces that it means business.

Unfortunately, the talented Scottish director, Paul McGuigan (“Gangster Number One”), who does a smooth job of handling a first-rate cast and setting up the narrative, can’t quite make the switch. Perhaps no one could.

Smilovic’s script is so self-conscious that it can’t help tripping over itself as it tries to turn pulp fiction into Sophocles. His handling of Slevin’s near-seduction of a key gay character is simply unpleasant; so are the violent racetrack scenes with Danny Aiello and Scott Gibson as different kinds of gambling victims.

Neverthless, the movie’s ambition and professionalism are admirable. It does a far better job of reshuffling standard crime-story elements than, for instance, “Running Scared” and other semi-hysterical, Tarantino-influenced thrillers. A major plus is the crisp editing by Andrew Hulme, who knows exactly how to emphasize the star qualities of the major players.

Kingsley is chilling as a veteran criminal who has never lost his street-level thuggishness. Morgan Freeman matches his mercenary qualities as a revenge-driven crime boss who allows emotion to rule his behavior. When he suddenly decides to go for broke and declare war on Kingsley’s character, a startling closeup captures the precise moment when his thoughts turn.

Liu’s role allows her to be considerably more than Slevin’s girlfriend. Even when her character’s participation in the plot becomes farfetched, she gives a grounded performance. Robert Forster and Stanley Tucci ease into their roles as driven cops, and Bruce Willis brings a necessary sense of mystery to his role as a hitman who’s more vulnerable than he seems.

McGuigan, Hartnett, Hulme and cinematographer Peter Sova previously worked together on the equally tricky “Wicker Park,” and they bring a confidence to “Lucky Number Slevin” that seems to come directly from their comfort with collaboration. If they get their hands on a first-rate script, they might produce a classic.