After a somewhat rough beginning with “Wicker Park,” helmer Paul McGuigan and star Josh Hartnett advance to new levels of devious gamesmanship in “Lucky Number Slevin.” Thoroughly — and sometimes justifiably — infatuated with its own cleverness, this mistaken-identity thriller delights in narrative complication and Tarantino-esque self-awareness; it’s when the labyrinthine plot starts to make sense, ironically, that the pervasive shallowness becomes a liability. Stylishly made and loaded with marquee talent, this Weinstein Co. acquisition is just smart enough to please mainstream auds without turning them off, though repeat viewings a la “Memento” and “The Sixth Sense” are unlikely.
Conjuring an enjoyably nonsensical underworld replete with warring Gotham crime lords and Hasidic Jewish hoodlums, pic is never more playfully dissembling than in its first reel, which practically conjures a new scenario every five minutes.
Four bloody murders are executed in unnervingly rapid succession, followed by a placid scene at an empty waystation where an anonymous man (Sam Jaeger) is approached by the wheelchair-bound Smith (Bruce Willis). Smith proceeds to tell the fellow a story, shown in sad, grisly flashback, about a man killed with his family after losing a bundle at the racetrack. In telling his tale, Smith defines a “Kansas City shuffle” — basically gamblers’ slang for misdirection, which turns out to be the primary strategy of Jason Smilovic’s teasingly convoluted script.
It’s here that the story proper begins, opening with a young man named Slevin (Hartnett) who’s taken up temporary residence at his friend Nick’s apartment in New York. Nick has gone missing, as Slevin soon learns from across-the-hall neighbor Lindsey (a disarmingly perky Lucy Liu), who insists on playing amateur detective while making no secret of her attraction to the hunky new houseguest.
Spicy flirtation gives way to violent trauma, however, when two thugs show up and mistake Slevin for Nick. They drag him before the Boss (Morgan Freeman), who calmly informs him that he’s got three days to pay $96,000. The Boss offers to forgive the debt if Slevin helps exact revenge on his arch-nemesis Schlomo (Ben Kingsley), also known as the Rabbi.
Meanwhile, a wheelchair-free Smith resurfaces as a hit man doing business with both the Boss and the Rabbi, while Slevin finds himself aggressively shadowed by a detective named Brikowski (Stanley Tucci).
The mysteries multiply along with the body count, but the fun of “Lucky Number Slevin” comes from its quick-witted improvisation — Lindsey, helpfully, turns out to be a coroner — and the nutty, liberating sense that pic could go anywhere.
If the shamelessly self-reflexive script sometimes smells like refried Tarantino, with wink-wink dialogues about comicbooks, James Bond and Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest,” it also contains sharper one-liners than any thriller in recent memory — most of them handed to Hartnett, whose Slevin is a serious smartass and all the more likable for it.
Pic quickly loses its sense of humor, however, once it gets down to the business of explaining itself (surprise, surprise, no one is exactly who he appears to be), springing its revelations with mechanical precision as Smilovic’s amusing wrong-man scenario morphs into a self-serious revenge drama. Frivolously entertaining trifle simply isn’t equipped to handle weighty ideas like the possibility of honor among killers.
McGuigan — who, on the evidence of “Wicker Park,” “Gangster No. 1” and “The Reckoning,” has yet to meet a variety of thriller he doesn’t like — unleashes a showy arsenal of whooshing cameras and jump cuts, filming the brief but brutal eruptions of violence for maximum impact. Cinematographer Peter Sova, in his fourth collaboration with the Scottish director, varies the palette superbly with different intensities of color.
Fabulous production design specializes in swirling wallpaper patterns that tantalizingly hint at pic’s underlying narrative enigmas. Montreal locations, which stood in for Chicago in “Wicker Park,” are at best a passable facsimile of New York.