Early in “Lucky Number Slevin,” one man wakes up another guy, tells him a colorful story and then kills him. Why doesn’t he just shoot the guy while he’s asleep? Because then we’d miss the fun of that colorful story.
“Lucky Number Slevin” is all about delighting in a well-told tale (at one point, a character looks straight into the camera and tells us, “It all starts with a horse”). The intricate caper movie boasts immensely likable characters, a genuinely clever script with lots of zippy dialogue and a plot that flips back and forth on itself like a gymnast. “Lucky Number Slevin” feels minty-fresh, but, if it has an antecedent, it’s such quippy movies as “Charade” or “To Catch a Thief,” comic thrillers that are always willing to pause for snappy repartee.
Josh Hartnett is the life of the repartee, giving a performance that makes good on the comic potential he showed with lesser material in “40 Days and 40 Nights” and “Blow Dry.” As the quick-witted Slevin, who always has three wisecracks at the ready and whose third one usually results in him getting punched in the schnoz, Hartnett gives a performance that is brisk, intelligent and effortlessly charming, and his scenes with Lucy Liu, as a bubbly Nancy Drew who’s delighted by every clue she stumbles upon, are the most fun you can have at the movies right now.
The story is so complicated that it resists summary, but the action involves Slevin being mistaken for a friend and getting pulled into a gang war between Morgan Freeman and Ben Kingsley. He and his neighbor (Liu) try to wiggle out of that situation while figuring out what happened to a mutual friend who disappeared. Bruce Willis is also involved, as is an awe-inspiring collection of busily hideous wallpaper.
In a weird way, the crazily patterned wallpaper is a clue. The movie works like that cluttered Victorian style of design that mixed together lots of patterns, knowing it looks awful when you pair up four different ones, but when you get 15 together, it suddenly all makes sense.
Something similar happens in “Lucky Number Slevin.” In the first hour, it just keeps piling on the mysteries and confusions. But the second half is one oh-that’s-how-this-all-fits-together moment after another. And it’s all so smart and entertaining that, when it was over, I immediately wanted to see it again.