You may not yet have lost your ardor and respect for the pressure-point hammerblow 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 QT's achievement is 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), he made his mini-revolution look far too easy.
The fad seemed to have peaked a few years back (somewhere 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 chasm between them traversed by unimpressive digital swoops. 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 a banal toot, a meaningless and tractionless gag, and nothing more.
As spun by Scotch hotshot McGuigan (The Acid House, Gangster No. 1), always and still a Guy Ritchie drone among the Tarantino-ites, the plot is standard-operating-procedure curlicue hyperbole, a one-up grift over The Usual Suspects that seems impossible to untangle until the film inevitably 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 in the end 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), and 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.
Before the idiosyncratically moronic henchmen show up, and before Slevin sits down for expansive, sparring, jovial exchanges with the respective megacrooks (Kingsley's is called “The Rabbi,” because, everyone answers, he is a rabbi), Hartnett's boy-toy meets cute with flibbertigibbet coroner Lindsey (Lucy Liu). There isn't much of a good reason why the entire film couldn't have occupied itself with Hartnett and Liu dishing, tossing bons mots, making bedroom eyes in a cheap apartment kitchen, and just being as bubbly together as a truckload of canned champagne. (The noir-banter screenplay by Jason Smilovic, as trivial as it is in intent, seems like it could sustain their pas de deux indefinitely — that would've been a movie with human substance.) Even a distended discussion of Bond movies can be forgiven amid the barely repressed giggles.
But then the story mechanics must begin locking gears and churning out contrivances, cliches, oversimplistic complexities, brutal stereotypes (a 2-D fool known only as the Fairy gets a bloody comeuppance), and pounding glibness. (Even the other characters grow tired of remarking on how relaxed and unthreatened Hartnett's wiseass seems, which is just one of a thousand clues the movie hands us to its obligatory secret über-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, Liu, 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.