It’s been nearly twenty years, but Paul McGuigan’s twisty-turny 2006 thriller emerges in 2023 looking far better than its initial reception might suggest. Back at the turn of the 21st century, trying to locate the sweet spot mined by Quentin Tarantino for his movies was something of a worldwide sport, and Jason Smilovic’s script offered a similar mix of hip pop culture dialogue, labyrinthine plotting and off-the-wall humour. That spicy-gumbo/magpie quality led some critics to dismiss McGuigan’s film as some kind of knock-off, but with Tarantino turning his attention to non-gangster fare thereafter, Lucky Number Slevin now looks like one of the better examples of the kind of noughties star-packed thriller du jour.
‘I’m just a guy who was in the wrong place at the wrong time,’ says Slevin (Josh Hartnett) and he’s proved right in multiple way as the story unspools. We’re in New York, and Slevin recalls a series of bad luck experiences; he comes home to find his girlfriend having sex in his apartment, and heads over to his friend Nick Fisher’s gaff in the hope of finding somewhere to crash. Wearing no more than a towel, Slevin strikes up a friendship with Fisher’s neighbour Lindsey (Lucy Liu), but gets swiftly abducted by henchmen. Fisher is missing, and several deadly big-shots want to know where he is, not least the Rabbi (Ben Kingsley) and The Boss (Morgan Freeman). Will Slevin accept a dangerous assassination wet-job to clear Fisher’s debt, and who is the mysterious Mr Goodkat (Bruce Willis) who is cutting a deadly swathe through the hapless goons employed by each side?
‘You will owe a large amount of money to the kind of people you don’t want to owe the smallest amount of money to…’ is an apt opening salvo for a script that feels like elements of Damon Runyon, Paul Auster and Martin McDonough rolled into one. Lines like ‘The lucky never realise they are lucky until it’s too late,’ or ‘his dreams were the stuff of pipes’ catch an agreeably downbeat tone, but Slevin is never morose; a bonkersly bright production design offers up garish knitwear and some of the most psychedelic wall-papers in cinema history. References to Colombo, The Schmoo and the Kansas City Shuffle offer up some pop culture credentials, and as an all star ensemble piece, also featuring Stanley Tucci, Robert Forster and Willis’s Hudson hawk co-star Danny Aiello, Lucky Number Slevin is easy on the eye throughout.
Perhaps the dialogue is too smarty-pants for it’s own good; ‘Why did they call him The Rabbi? Because he’s a rabbi…’ scans well, but wears out its welcome as a gag the third or fourth time. Viewed in 2023, the real MVP here is Willis, in probably his last known role with hair. Shooting unwary gangsters with twin guns through a partition wall, or taking out crims in a trench coat while ascending on a moving pater noster, Willis is cool AF in this substantial hit-man role that the Red movies successfully riffed on. Lucky Number Slevin was a hit at the time, but time has been kind to this gangster comedy, which looks great in today’s HD and is well worth a look for fans of McGuigan, Hartnett and particular those with a penchant for Bruce Willis in action mode.
Lucky Number Slevin is on UK digital platforms from 18 September 2023. Thanks for access.