It's official: The surprise twist has jumped the shark. The last-minute presto-chango was once the province of cinematic sleight-of-hand artists such as M. Night Shyamalan. They were mind-blowing bonuses to motion pictures that had already proven themselves things of substance and beauty. Following the success of The Sixth Sense, however, they came to be seen as ends, so to speak, in themselves. And increasingly, 11th-hour surprises became the main attraction in some films. Shyamalan himself fell victim to the phenomenon. Was there any reason to see The Village, for example, other than to be surprised by its final scenes? As someone who saw its twist coming in the movie's first 15 minutes, I can assure you there wasn't.
In Hollywood, of course, anything worth doing is worth overdoing. Today, last-minute twists aren't a movie's main attraction, they are the movie. They're the only reason that contrived, forgettable contraptions such as The Forgotten, Twisted, Flightplan and the particularly unnecessary Derailed exist at all. Everything else in them is window dressing. Filler.
To that list we now add Lucky Number Slevin, a movie purported to be a drama of mistaken identity, according to its studio marketing department. But you would be mistaken to believe it. Josh Hartnett seems to be channeling the lanky, loose-cannon Brad Pitt of Fight Club and Snatch in the role of a young man who ostensibly pays a visit to a friend in the Big Apple only to discover his apartment deserted and his buddy nowhere to be found.
He's barely had time to unpack and shower when goons arrive to deliver overly mannered, imitation Tarantino lines of dialogue and escort him to the penthouse headquarters of a mob boss known only as, well, The Boss. Morgan Freeman plays the kingpin who's owed $96,000 in gambling debts by Hartnett's missing friend. He refuses to believe that Hartnett is who he says he is, but does offer him a personalized payment plan: All he has to do to get off the hook is whack the son of a rival kingpin.
Ben Kingsley appears as The Rabbi, onetime partner-turned-mortal-enemy of The Boss who is also -- you guessed it -- a rabbi. The award-winning actor's appearance in a production of Slevin's caliber is symptomatic of a second trend: that the esteemed performer is appearing ever more frequently in dopey, disposable fare. (See Species, Suspect Zero and A Sound of Thunder. On second thought, don't.)
Anyway, Kingsley is a scenery-chewing, cartoonish baddie who is also owed an unmanageable sum by Hartnett's absent chum, and is also willing to let him skate if he performs a deadly errand. Did I mention Freeman and Kingsley dwell in fortified penthouses facing one another? Right.
Bruce Willis pops by to do his patented stone-cold-assassin shtick. (See Last Man Standing, The Jackal or The Whole Nine Yards. On second thought, don't.) He's a legendary killer for hire by the name of Mr. Goodkat, and he has connections to both kingpins. It's clear he's in town to eliminate someone. We're just never quite sure whom that is -- until Big Surprise Time.
And that about covers it, except to note that Lucy Liu goes into ditz overdrive to play the young woman who lives across the hall from Hartnett's friend. Like the film itself, her character is an unconvincing combination of the completely preposterous and the overly cute. The fact that violent thugs are streaming through the guy's apartment like it's Grand Central Station doesn't faze her or, for that matter, even seem to register. She develops a fast-acting crush on the total stranger, pops in constantly to flirt, and take lighthearted stabs at "solving the case" of her missing neighbor. She engages in imitation Tarantino pop culture debates on the question of which actor made the best Bond. If the Oscars had a category for Least Believable Performance in a Supporting Role, she'd be a lock.
Not that any of this matters, because the script is a prank; a significant portion of what the audience is told turns out to be a fib, a set-up for the climactic, rug-pulling switcheroo. Will it take you by surprise? It probably will. Of course, if Morgan Freeman whipped off a mask and revealed himself to be Santa Claus or George W. Bush or Quentin Tarantino, that would be surprising, too, but it wouldn't be terribly credible. Neither is what happens in Lucky Number Slevin.
The bottom line: A lot of top-notch talent is squandered in the service of a director (Paul McGuigan) and writer (Jason Smilovic) who thought they were being far cleverer than they were. Few who sit through this lightweight contrivance, I suspect, will leave feeling the least bit lucky.