While it could have been little more than a clumsy, straight-to-video Tarantino knock-off, 'Lucky Number Slevin' takes the road less traveled with an all-star cast, a slew of sharp performances, and a surprisingly solid script. In fact, rather than hurling bullets and F-bombs with careless abandon, the film follows a more subtle path, delivering an original and amusing crime noir about hitmen caught (quite literally) with their pants down.
Mistaken for another man, a mysterious young man named Slevin (Josh Hartnett) finds himself trapped in a deceitful game of cat-and-mouse with a pair of rival mob bosses (Sir Ben Kingsley and Morgan Freeman), a relentless detective (Stanley Tucci), a chilling assassin called 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 has to navigate a disastrous case of mistaken identity and find a way to turn the tables in his favor.
To be blunt, 'Lucky Number Slevin' would be a fairly horrible flick if it had a different cast. As I watched each double-cross unfold, I tried to think of other actors who could fill the individual roles, but each part is written so precisely for its performer that removing any one piece would undermine the entire structure of the film. The characters are creatures of conflict and contrast. Hartnett is sweet but cunning, Kingsley is ruthless but logical, and Freeman is quiet but convincingly vicious. But the complexities don't end there -- Tucci is consistent but oblivious, Willis is cold but hides a warm heart, and Liu creates one of the most eccentric female leads of this young century.
The film is also home to line after line of witty dialogue, natural chemistry between the wide array of characters, and a slow-burn story that's a blast from beginning to end. While the numerous twists and turns eventually become a bit gratuitous and overreaching, most of them still bring a smile to my face. Sure, I predicted several plot points from a mile away, but it rarely hindered my overall enjoyment of the film itself.
Of particular note is the art direction. Everything from costuming to set decoration has been intricately designed to induce unease, comfort, confusion, and a variety of other feelings. I'm usually not the kind of moviegoer who notices character's clothing, stage dressing, or room arrangements, but I found my eyes constantly moving from one side of the screen to the other as though I was studying the work of an award-winning photographer. Director Paul McGuigan's camera placement, color and pattern design, and tonal choices have as much impact on the story as the emotional (or emotionless) images in the films of Stanley Kubrick.
With all of that said, 'Lucky Number Slevin' is by no means a perfect movie. In particular, I noted a few key choices that seemed to reach for Tarantino-esque notoriety -- the kingpins' henchmen are cartoonish caricatures, the movie follows tangental conversations, and the dialogue is occasionally overwritten -- however, for the most part, these are transient dry heaves in an otherwise exceptional modern noir with nods to Sam Spade, Elmore Leonard, and Orson Welles.
Ultimately, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed 'Lucky Number Slevin.' I sat down expecting a predictable mess, but instead discovered a pleasantly engaging flick that I've watched several times since. It may not be for everyone, but give it a shot and see what you think.
If you already own the 'Lucky Number Slevin' UK Blu-ray import, you might want to give this domestic edition a pass. While I can't be 100% certain (since I no longer have access to the import I reviewed earlier this year), Weinstein's domestic BD looks identical to the previously released HD DVD (which suffered from a few minor problems the import didn't). To be clear, the differences aren't grave and certainly don't ruin this latest release, but it's still worth mentioning.
First the good. 'Lucky Number Slevin' features a technically proficient 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer that renders the film's intricate wallpaper and fine textures with ease. By comparison, the standard DVD is befuddled by the various patterns that pepper the set design, offering fans nothing but a muddy mess of blobs and squiggles. The Blu-ray version's palette is lovely as well. Blood splashes in vibrant reds across the screen, black levels are varied and detailed, and skin tones are natural. More importantly, balanced contrast levels force primary colors to pop, crafting a beautiful, three-dimensional picture.
However, look a little closer and you'll notice the transfer drifting into dangerous territory. Long shots of cityscapes are poorly defined and plagued with uneven grain, many scenes look soft compared to other high-def transfers, and the set lighting occasionally wreaks havoc on the image -- most frequently in Slevin's apartment and The Boss's penthouse. Other complaints? Visibility in the shadows is lost at times (admittedly, an intentional directorial choice) and the source print, while relatively clean, suffers from a bit of errant print damage (most noticeably when Hartnett visits the Rabbi's son in his hotel room). Thankfully, I didn't detect any significant source noise, artifacting, banding, or distracting post-production meddling.
Don't get me wrong, the domestic Blu-ray edition of 'Lucky Number Slevin' still looks amazing (particularly compared to the standard DVD), but its transfer isn't as polished or refined as other high-def releases.
Improving upon its previously released HD DVD counterpart's Dolby Digital Plus audio mix, the Blu-ray edition of 'Lucky Number Slevin' arrives with a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround track. Sure, McGuigan's modern noir is a conversational affair, but, like the UK import's DTS HD Master Audio mix, this upgraded TrueHD track offers deeper, more natural vocal tones, tightly-tuned prioritization, and plenty of healthy LFE support.
For a movie billed as a guns-n-gangsters extravaganza, there's a distinct maturity present in the soundscape. Its subtleties highlight the relationship between the film's soundtrack and shadow-cloaked imagery, all while creating a convincing audible world to dwell in. The soundtrack is a compelling part of the soundscape as well. Dancing behind the edges of every scene, jazz-infused music complements the tone and look of the film, further enhancing the groundwork laid by the actors and the filmmakers. To top it all off, violence has an organic resonance that surrounds the listener with soft thuds, squishy splashes, and heavy blasts.
The track is a bit front heavy at times, but I was pleased to find that the rear channels consistently work together to create an immersive, ambient atmosphere. Just skip to the scene in the upscale restaurant and listen to the crowd chatter, clinking silverware, and rustling movements of the wait staff. By my estimation, it all sounds better than it does on the HD DVD's DD+ mix. While I have to accept the possibility that I managed to lose myself to the dreaded placebo effect, fans of 'Lucky Number Slevin' should be more than pleased with the performance of the Blu-ray edition's TrueHD track.
The Blu-ray edition of ‘Lucky Number Slevin’ includes the same standard and exclusive features that appeared on the previously released HD DVD version. I would have preferred to find some more extensive featurettes and behind-the-scenes documentaries, but the supplemental package still adds a lot of value to this release.
'Lucky Number Slevin' could have been another uninspired shoot-em-up, but instead turned out to be a witty and complex dramedy with superb performances. The Blu-ray edition features an attractive video transfer that bests the standard DVD, an impressive Dolby TrueHD audio track, and a decent collection of supplements (including an exclusive featurette). While the uninitiated should definitely rent this one before giving it any further consideration, fans of modern noir and crime fiction will have a grand time watching Slevin try to survive several cases of 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.