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Lucky Number Slevin

Keep up, if you can — because, as a mysterious assassin informs us at the beginning of Lucky Number Slevin (2006), the "Kansas City Shuffle" is all about going left when everyone else is looking right. Well, there's that, and also that the Shuffle always requires at least one dead body. The story actually opens with a couple of them, as two bookies are mysteriously knocked off, their valuable ledgers going out the nearest exit with the hitman. The books happen to have one name in common, Nick Fisher (Sam Jaeger), a gambler who's recently placed a call summoning his old friend, Slevin Kelevera (Josh Hartnett), to visit him in New York. However, when Slevin turns up at Nick's apartment, his buddy is nowhere to be found. Slevin makes the acquaintance of Nick's pretty neighbor, Lindsey (Lucy Liu), but before long he finds that he has even more new friends — namely, two thugs who mistake Slevin for Nick and haul him in to see "The Boss" (Morgan Freeman), a gangster to whom Nick owes $96,000, now that bookie Slim Hopkins is dead and The Boss has acquired his debtors. But The Boss makes "Nick" (er, that would be Slevin) a proposition: He can settle the debt if he kills Yitzchok "the Fairy" (Michael Rubenfeld), the son of rival gangster "The Rabbi" (Ben Kingsley). Slevin accepts the deal and returns to tell Lindsey the story, only to have two more goons haul him in before The Rabbi, who demands $33,000 owed by Nick. Meanwhile, NYPD Det. Detective Brikowski (Stanley Tucci) knows that Slevin Kelevera is not Nick Fisher, but he's less certain why he's been spotted being taken to meet two of the city's most notorious crime lords.

*          *          *

With slick direction by Paul McGuigan (Wicker Park) and a chatty debut script from screenwriter Jason Smilovic, Lucky Number Slevin can be faulted perhaps only for arriving several years too late. Which isn't necessarily Smilovic's fault — his script was handed around Hollywood for several years until funding, a director, a cast, and finally a distributor (The Weinstein Co.) could get a finished product in theaters, and even then on a modest budget. Had Lucky Number Slevin arrived in the midst of the mid-'90s indie boom, one might be more inclined to mention it in the same breath as The Usual Suspects or Memento, if not quite Pulp Fiction (although, as with Tarantino's two-bit hoodlums, Smilovic's characters tend to know a bit more about pop culture and movie history than the average schlub). As with its predecessors, Slevin is sturdily built on post-noir archetypes, blending detective fiction with urban racketeering, not to mention several red herrings. But where The Usual Suspects was an event of sorts, Slevin was unfortunately consigned to an entirely different cinematic landscape — a decade where the most prominent directors of indie crime movies (Bryan Singer, Christopher Nolan) have moved on to major Hollywood franchises and the most recent cinematic talking point involved cowboys in love. Nevertheless, it's an easy film to like, particularly with the splendid cast that's headed up by veterans Morgan Freeman and Ben Kingsley, along with Bruce Willis as an inscrutable trigger-man, a charming Lucy Liu, and Josh Hartnett, who has yet to demonstrate A-list charisma but nonetheless delivers here. Where Slevin works best is in its final moments — there is a Hollywood ending of sorts, but also a pretty good re-tooling of the "revenge play" genre in the final act, a violent brand of scorched-earth tragedy that's currently consigned to Sophomore Lit courses but left stacks of bodies on the stage in the days of Marlowe and Shakespeare. Slevin doesn't shy away from this when it counts, although it's the very thing that makes that Hollywood ending all the more disappointing. Fortunately, the alternate ending included on this DVD offers viewers a glimpse of at least one darker, and more plausible, resolution.

The Weinstein Company's DVD release of Lucky Number Slevin features a solid anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio (English and French). Director Paul McGuigan offers a solo commentary, while a second track features scenarist Jason Smilovic and stars Josh Hartnett and Lucy Liu. Also on board are three deleted scenes and the alternate ending (with "play all" and commentary), the featurette "Making Lucky Number Slevin" (13 min.), and the theatrical trailer. Keep-case.

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