If Quentin Tarantino had a nickel for every smug crime caper that came out in the wake of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, he'd have a year's worth of bus fare. Paul McGuigan's paint-by-numbers thriller Lucky Number Slevin takes several pages (plus cast members Bruce Willis and Lucy Liu) from the Tarantino playbook, but for all its clever sleights-of-hand, there's a yawning chasm in the place where its heart should be. Tarantino catches a lot of flak for the movie-geek insularity of his work, but knock-offs like this one throw into sharp relief the level of emotional investment that goes into his stories and characters. Though Slevin functions better than most, with an overstuffed plot that efficiently irons out its wrinkles, what's left at the end is a hollow experience, a zero-sum accumulation of twists.
In his second collaboration with McGuigan after the misbegotten Wicker Park, Josh Hartnett stars as an enigmatic, troubled young man who takes up residence at his friend's apartment. As nosy neighbor Lucy Liu informs him, Hartnett's friend has gone missing and his health is in question, because he owes the wrong people a debt approaching $100,000. When a couple of thugs come to collect, they mistake Hartnett for his friend and drag him to "The Boss" (Morgan Freeman), who gives him an ultimatum: Pay off the debt within three days, or help Freeman exact revenge on "The Rabbi" (Ben Kingsley), his criminal nemesis from an adjacent building. The wild card in this scenario is hit man Bruce Willis, a mirthless enforcer who takes an interest in Hartnett and appears to be operating on behalf of both Freeman and Kingsley.
Not quite the average pretty-boy actor, Hartnett has dark, vacant eyes that undercut his handsomeness; his villainous role in O exploited his looks well, but he generally makes for a bland hero. It's essential that he draw enough sympathy to take the audience through the film's knotty story, especially once revelations about his character's past give his actions new meaning, but his austere performance lacks urgency and emotion. With Willis also at his most stoic, the only things left to admire about Lucky Number Slevin are the Yojimbo-like machinations of the plot, which finds the two men working both sides like expert mercenaries. It's all superficially enjoyable, right up to the point where the big picture starts coming into focus and it's not worth looking anymore.