While it could have been yet another toothless Quentin Tarantino rip-off, an all-star cast and an above average script lead 'Lucky Number Slevin' down another path, instead delivering an original and amusing crime noir about hitmen caught (literally) with their pants down.
Mistaken for another man, Slevin (Josh Hartnett) is trapped in a bramble between rival mob bosses The Rabbi (Sir Ben Kingsley) and The Boss (Morgan Freeman), an ever present detective (Stanley Tucci), a mysterious assassin that goes by the name Mr. Goodkat (Bruce Willis), and a precocious neighbor (Lucy Liu) who works at the local morgue. Under constant surveillance, and manipulated at every turn, Slevin must find a way to turn the tables in his favor.
To be blunt, 'Lucky Number Slevin' would be a terrible movie with any other cast -- and even under their masterful care, the script still occasionally falters. As I watched each performance, I tried to think of other actors who could fill the individual roles, and I was stumped at nearly every turn. Each part is written so perfectly for its performer that to remove that one piece feels like it would collapse the entire structure of the film -- Hartnett is sweet but dark, Kingsley is ruthless but logical, Freeman is quiet but convincingly vicious, Tucci is intelligent but oblivious at the same time, Willis seems cold but hides a warm heart, and Liu creates one of the most eccentric female leads of this young century as a woman that's naïve and vulnerable but oddly world-weary and knowledgeable at the same time. You can feel the entire movie rising up to meet the quality of the actors, as each one lifts their performance to match the other. In the special features, several of the actors refer to a scene that sees Freeman and Kingsley going toe-to toe in a battle of acting finesse -- each one describes the crowded set with Willis, Hartnett, Liu, and others showing up just to soak in the experience and expertise of two of Hollywood's greats. It's moments like these that make 'Lucky Number Slevin' a cut above the rest.
The dialogue is quick and smart, the character chemistry is natural, and the story is a slow-burn blast from beginning to end. Twist and turns abound, with most bringing a smile to my face as my brain worked back through all of the earlier clues I missed. Admittedly, some plot points could be predicted from a mile away, but they never hindered my enjoyment of the movie.
Of particular note in this film is the art direction. Everything about 'Lucky Number Slevin from costuming to wallpaper is intricately textured in such a way as to induce a variety of feelings such as unease, comfort, and confusion. I'm usually not the kind of moviegoer who notices character clothing, set dressing, or room decoration, but I found my eyes constantly flickering from one side of the screen to the other as though I were at an art gallery looking at the work of an award-winning photographer. When I learned that director Paul McGuigan began his career in photography, everything began to make sense. His camera placement, color and pattern design, and tonal choices have as much impact as the emotional (or emotionless) images in the films of the late Stanley Kubrick.
With all of that said, 'Lucky Number Slevin' isn't a perfect movie and I found a few, important choices to be seemingly desperate for Tarantino-esque notoriety -- the kingpin henchmen tend to be cartoonish caricatures, the movie can follow tangents of characters telling stories and jokes, the dialogue is occasionally stocky or overwritten, and the movie is at times almost crushed under the weight of its various plotlines. For the most part though, these are short-lived dry heaves in an otherwise top-tier, modern noir that has a substantially intriguing hint of Sam Spade, Elmore Leonard, and Orson Welles.
Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed 'Lucky Number Slevin' and, aside from the groan inducing title, you shouldn't hesitate to give it a try. It's not for everyone, but throw it on your Netflix queue or hit up your local Blockbuster and see what you think.
The visual presentation -- brought to life by a nice AVC MPEG-4 transfer -- is a technical eye catcher, especially when it comes to rendering all of the previously mentioned textures and wallpaper stylings without falling prey to shimmering or the pesky screen-door effect you may notice on films with similar set design. The Standard-Def DVD is so befuddled by these patterns that it's a blurry, muddy mess in comparison. On this HD DVD transfer, layers upon layers of textures retain their depth and dimension as far as the eye can follow into the background of each shot.
The unopened presents don't stop there -- colors are lovely and blood splashes vibrant reds across the screen, black levels are varied and detailed, skin tones are natural, and the palette utilized by the filmmakers adds to the tone of every scene. Most impressive of all, the contrast pops primary colors away from extreme whites and blacks, molding a beautiful world that I felt I could reach out and touch. Take a look at the bookend airport scenes at the beginning and end of the film -- the stark walls, the sickeningly bright blue chairs, the dark suited characters -- and it's easy to see how a high definition movie should look.
However, look a little closer and some of the impressive video can often drift into dangerous territory. Long shots of cityscapes are low in detail and heavily grained, the entire film feels softer than most sharp high-def transfers (a noticeable problem throughout), and the lighting can be dull -- most frequently in scenes in Slevin's apartment and The Boss's penthouse. Other complaints? Visibility in the shadows is lost at times (likely an intentional choice by the director to add to his noirish homage) and the source print, while almost entirely blemish free, stumbles with the rare, odd print scratch. When Hartnett visits the Rabbi's son in his hotel room for some seedy business, watch the upper left corner to catch a blaring scratch strike a white bolt of lighting down the screen. It seems strange that a movie with so many post-production effects and filtering work would have these imperfections, but they're there. It's still light years beyond the look of the DVD -- just not quite as perfect as it could've been.
The Weinstein Company presents a subtle Dolby Digital-Plus surround mix that clocks in with an audio bitrate of 1.5 mpbs which provides 'Lucky Number Slevin' with deep, natural voice tones in a largely dialogue driven experience. As such, the track is largely front heavy, but never feels weak for being so. Even when the channels are nearly silent, they consistently work together to create an immersive ambience that's ignored in a lot of modern sound design. Watching the scene in which Slevin and Lindsey follow The Rabbi's son to an upscale restaurant, I closed my eyes and found the crowd chatter, dialogue, clinking silverware, and rustling movements to be expertly layered on top of one another. I could hear everything, but I could only really lock in on the things that mattered. For a shockingly quiet guns-n-gangsters film, I was happy to find a maturity in the soundscape.
The softened dialogue also highlights a top-tier soundtrack that borrows something instantly familiar from many major eras of film noir. Dancing behind the edges of every scene, the music nicely compliments the tone and look of the film, further enhancing the groundwork being laid by the actors and the filmmakers. On top of this, the violence has an organic, realistic resonance at its core with soft thuds, squishy splashes, and heavy shots & explosions.
I'm really fighting the urge to rate the audio higher to commend the filmmakers on a unique and restrained soundscape that's as textured and earthy as the wallpaper on every wall. However, there just isn't anything to make this a showstopper in terms of the audio package except to the most discerning ears in the room. There's nothing to point to as distracting, but there's just nothing to point to that revolutionizes the way we hear movies.
First up in a solid package of features is "Making Lucky Number Slevin," a thirteen minute featurette with cast and crew members that traces the development of the film. I was frankly stunned to see this mini-doc focus on character motivation, acting craft, and delivery rather than the repetitive technical mumbo-jumbo that usually haunts this kind of supplement. It's a breath of fresh air, exceptionally well done, interesting, and covers a lot of ground in just fifteen minutes time.
Next up is a series of rather lengthy deleted scenes that, with one exception, were wisely cut from the film. The exception is a meaty monologue by Kingsley that extends his scene with Freeman. It reveals so much of his past, so much character depth, and so much raw ferocity, that I can't figure out why it was excluded. The other scenes are too reliant on tangential riffs handed off to minor characters that don't deserve the development they're given. There were a few nice scenes with Bruce Willis that were a bit too reminiscent of Harvey Keitel's Walter Wolf and really only reminded me of how many times scenes took place on an elevator in the film. Oddest of all, the alternate ending is a forty second throw away scene that swaps a character's killer with another man. The theatrical ending is so fitting and cyclical, that its loss would've severely crimped the overriding theme of the story and this alternate ending feels completely foreign and bizarre.
Finally, a pair of commentaries round out the proceedings featuring director Paul McGuigan and a spliced track combining Liu and Hartnett from one recording, and writer Jason Smilovic from another. The director's commentary is candid and unpretentious as McGuigan sharply dissects the film, its design, and his motivations. It can be a tough listen due to his accent, tone, and mumbling, but it's still worth checking out for fans of the film. The actors' and writer's commentary is a mixed bag -- Hartnett and Liu have amazing chemistry and are a joy to listen to, but Smilovic is green to Hollywood and his awe shines through in an annoying awe-shucks sort of way. Hartnett and Liu, on the other hand, produce one of the most informative and charismatic actor commentaries I've listened to, and waiting for their next entrance kept me plowing through this track.
'Lucky Number Slevin' could've been another shoot-em-up, rip-em-off, bang-boom 'splosion of a B-movie, but it instead turned out to be an amusing, witty, and complex noir homage with superb performances that captured both my attention and my imagination. This HD DVD is a good upgrade over the Standard-Def DVD, including pleasing visuals and a subtle audio package, each of which makes noticeable missteps that aren't too distracting. Packed with supplemental features that are either too short or occasionally dry, this release is only a good investment for fans who will be happy to see a small but rewarding high-def exclusive feature that sweetens the pot. You might want to rent this one before buying to make sure it falls within the bounds of your taste -- but make no mistake, fans of modern noir and crime fiction will have a grand time following Slevin through this tricky world of back stabbing, mistaken identity, and deception.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.