"I need you to make it look like it ain't what it is," says Ben Kingsley's Jewish mobster to Bruce Willis' soft-spoken assassin in Lucky Number Slevin. But he could just as easily be speaking to Scottish director Paul McGuigan, who has the unenviable task of making an Elmore Leonard-style crime caper revolving around a Hitchcockian case of mistaken identity not look like just another Quentin Tarantino rip-off.
The odds are stacked against him. Indeed, from the moment Morgan Freeman turns up to deliver a rambling monologue about cartoon character the Shmoo, it's evident writer Jason Smilovic has graduated summa cum laude from the QT School of Obscure Pop Culture Reference. He's also been taking a few lessons from the Coens, with Josh Hartnett's affable, unflappable Slevin resembling a younger, hipper version of The Big Lebowski's Dude. ("You should play ball!" threatens one of Morgan's goons. "Really? Do you think I'm tall enough?" Josh replies, earning a thump in the gut for his trouble.) And with Hartnett shuttling between the impregnable strongholds that Freeman ('The Boss') and Kingsley ('The Rabbi') occupy on opposite sides of the same Manhattan street, it's hard not to see him as a latter-day Yojimbo playing one off against the other.
As derivative as it all is, however, McGuigan's film has a jaunty zest and sly ingenuity that prove unexpectedly winning. From the opening scene, in which Willis distracts a potential mark with a seemingly irrelevant story of racetrack hijinks, it's clear that subterfuge, misdirection and double-cross are the names of the game. It's a tactic the Gangster No. 1 director has taken to heart, leading his audience up the garden path before pulling the rug out from under them when they least expect it. Okay, so the final third isn't entirely satisfying, but it does allow Hartnett to show off his expanding acting chops after spending much of the first hour being shoved from pillar to post with only a bath towel to hide his modesty.
After his flat-footed turn in McGuigan's Wicker Park (the director's welcome theatrical return after the straight-to-DVD The Reckoning) the actor's laconic performance finally suggests there might be more to him than a nice smile and some tidy abs. And while Freeman is too genial to convince as a ruthless kingpin, Kingsley glowers effectively as his shotgun-wielding nemesis. Best of all is Lucy Liu, delightfully unpredictable as a friendly coroner who pops in to borrow a cup of sugar and ends up as Hartnett's ally and bedmate. She's more animated than Willis, who, with his grey raincoat and greying toupee, appears to be under the impression that killers-forhire dress like insurance salesmen.