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Let's twist again 

click to enlarge The Boss (Morgan Freeman, with Josh Hartnett as Slevin) - ponders the age-old question: Why do men have nipples, - anyway?
  • The Boss (Morgan Freeman, with Josh Hartnett as Slevin) ponders the age-old question: Why do men have nipples, anyway?

Lucky Number Slevin (R)

Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Tinseltown

I have this mental picture of the next generation of American screenwriters and it ain't pretty. They're busy backward-engineering from whatever it is they're convinced is The Next Big Twist Ending, giggling to themselves in self-satisfied glee that they've come up with something so fiendishly clever you scarcely deserve to have it unspool in front of you.

If this seems unfair to screenwriters in general, I apologize. But over the last decade, contemporary filmmakers and easily impressed audiences have conspired to create an environment of ubiquitous "surprise" endings. And since the use of such endings are no longer at all surprising, once you've out-guessed the writer there's rarely anything left worth your attention.

That's actually less true of Lucky Number Slevin than it is of most such efforts. Indeed, for well over an hour, it's quite a frisky piece of popcorn. The typically convoluted set-up involves a guy called Slevin (Josh Hartnett), who finds himself in some hot water when he's mistaken for the friend at whose New York apartment he's staying.

It seems the friend in question owes plenty of gambling debts to two rival crime lords The Boss (Morgan Freeman) and The Rabbi (Sir Ben Kingsley) and each creditor intends to use Slevin against the other. And somewhere in the background, orchestrating it all, is a mysterious killer-for-hire known as Goodkat (Bruce Willis).

Screenwriter Jason Smilovic's dialogue delivers more genuine laughs than a lot of similar efforts, full of punchy and offbeat moments. There's some forced banter most notably between Slevin and his designated love interest Lindsey (Lucy Liu) but the draggy moments are more than offset by satisfying weirdness.

Whether it's Mykelti Williamson channeling his own Bubba from Forrest Gump as a dim-witted thug, or director Paul McGuigan (Gangster No. 1) using a fast-motion version of the-story-so-far to suggest bringing another character up to speed, Lucky Number Slevin remains fun because it's clear it isn't taking itself too seriously.

Until, that is, it begins taking itself too seriously. It's tough to dismiss plot machinations like those in Lucky Number Slevin without simultaneously dismissing some of those who will watch it, because some will clearly not see the "twist" barreling clumsily through the room like a Great Dane puppy. If you thought The Return of the King took forever to end, sit through the Sir Basil Exposition climax of Lucky Number Slevin.

And even more ridiculous than how long the movie takes to explain the obvious (in small words, so's we don't miss nothin') is how it tries to introduce an actual emotional component to the film.

We're expected to feel something for the events that precipitated Slevin's shenanigans, when the rest of the caper practically screams "disposable entertainment." It's a desperate tactic by a writer and director trying to pretend that anything matters here except the ending, and how it's meant to leave viewers impressed at the clockwork precision of it all.

After the fun of Lucky Number Slevin's first half wears off, there's nothing left but the loud sound of filmmakers patting themselves on the back.

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