You may not yet have lost your ardor and respect for the pressure-point hammer blow that Quentin Tarantino executed on American movies, but it’s difficult at this late date not to view him as an imperative inoculation with unfortunate side effects: gas, bloating, dizziness, delusions of cleverness. Imitators flock when coolness seems an everyman’s right, and because Tarantino’s achievement was 75 percent chutzpah, film-geek craziness and attitude (the kind that allows your characters to ramble for many script pages about TV shows and cereals), his mini-revolution has always looked far too easy.
The fad seemed to have peaked a few years back (sometime between 1996’s 2 Days in the Valley and 2000’s Four Dogs Playing Poker), but overwritten, slang-fueled screenplays still impress the small-studio suits. And so we have Paul McGuigan’s Lucky Number Slevin, a smug, derivative but frequently witty crime cartoon set in a mythical New York City where dueling underworld kingpins (Morgan Freeman and Ben Kingsley) face each other in sealed towers. The noir vibe is a self-conscious affectation, and bloodshed is used for nervous laughs because the movie alerts us in every scene — often more than once — that what we’re experiencing is just a banal toot.
As spun by Scots hotshot McGuigan (The Acid House, Gangster No. 1), a Guy Ritchie drone among the Tarantinoites, the plot is standard-operating-procedure curlicue hyperbole, a one-up grift over The Usual Suspects that seems impossible to untangle until the film explains it all, laboriously, in speeches. What passes for screenplay structure, as with Spike Lee’s Inside Man, is merely self-involved Erector Set rigging that signifies nothing but itself and finally requires a dump of desperate exposition. We begin with a wheelchair-lounging Bruce Willis in a bus depot — the smirking starts early and does not subside — regaling a barely interested schlub with backstory (racetrack, bad luck, murder), then leap to the present, where Slevin (an amiable Josh Hartnett) comes from out of town and is mistaken for his deadbeat friend, who’s in gambling hock to both of the towered bosses.
Soon, the story mechanics begin locking gears and churning out contrivances, clichés, oversimplistic complexities, brutal stereotypes and pounding glibness. (Even the other characters grow tired of remarking on how relaxed Hartnett’s wiseass seems, which is just one of a thousand clues to the movie’s obligatory secret narrative.) It’s a waggish but empty vessel, with unengaged time enough for you to consider how Tarantino’s babbling influence is at least preferable — wittier and craftier — to that of Joe Eszterhas or Shane Black. Still, opening the gates on pros like Freeman, Kingsley and Stanley Tucci (as a frustrated cop) is its own kind of high-time spectator sport. Cursed — but ironically — with stomach-churning ’60s decor, Slevin might round off in the Park Chan-wook country of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy, but the lingering sense of it is as an amusement park for the actors, who are as infectiously overjoyed for the bouncy banter as preschoolers on Christmas morning. Like tired parents, our enjoyment is primarily vicarious, and whatever gifts we get are nothing impressive.