You get an idea of where this movie is headed when you meet Slevin, played by Josh Hartnett. Lanky, wry and slightly freckled, Hartnett is better cast as a sports hero or a rookie cop than a suave sophisticate caught in a web of intrigue. But here he is visiting New York to see an old pal who's turned up missing. As Slevin explains to pal's comely next-door neighbor (Lucy Liu), he's lost his apartment, girlfriend and wallet, which makes him easily mistaken for the nowhere-to-be-found buddy who owes heaps of gambling debts to various big-time bookmakers. For the next hour, Slevin is roughly handled between two halves of a gigantic set piece, the penthouse lairs of these rival crime bosses (Morgan Freeman and Ben Kingsley), former friends who've glared at each other for 20 years behind twin sets of bulletproof glass trying to see who can overact the other, from what we can tell.
The twist is that Hartnett, unlike Cary Grant, has been instructed to look bemused rather than nervous, cocky rather than alarmed. Slevin doesn't try to run. He doesn't even try to plead his case, at least not very strenuously. This is the aughts; he's jaded, resigned. He smart-mouths his persecutors. He even goes looking for more trouble. A post-postmodern Verbal Kint, he isn't satisfied with a smart-aleck comeback; he waits to catch someone else's clichéd bit of tough-guy speak and tosses it back. Almost every line of dialogue, between every character in the movie, is constructed like this example of obligatory detectives-versus-Slevin trade-off:
Cop: "You should really play ball, kid."
Slevin: "Really? You think I'm tall enough?"
These days, that kind of smug, hard-boiled dialogue is borderline annoying in a character, but it's a headache when someone decides to make a whole movie out of it. "Lucky Number Slevin" is meant to be clever. Everything from the dialogue to the characterizations (every character wackier than the last!) right down to the set decoration is a succession of overcooked "Pulp Fiction"-speak and hauntingly shot images of impressively decorated apartments. We, the humble audience, are supposed to be duly impressed. Yet even the clichés are overwrought, not surprising from a movie with seven producers.
Despite the enthusiastic efforts of its set designers and stylists, "Lucky Number Slevin" is mostly a standard addition to the seemingly endless series of contemporary comic-thrillers, fixed somewhere between "The Usual Suspects" and "Get Shorty." You may not go looking for hyperrealism, but on the other hand, are you paying 10 bucks to see Bruce Willis play an international assassin? In Willis' defense, his Mr. Goodkat may already in April be the worst casting idea of the year. It's an unusual mistake in so polished an entertainment product, but likely a symptomatic error. Mr. Goodkat isn't a real character. Neither is anyone else, really. They appear to exist only to provide some cheap laughs and facilitate a shrug-inducing conclusion. Not that we needed it, but "Lucky Number Slevin" is more proof that clever is not the same thing as smart. (R) 104 min. * S