Lucky Number Slevin

A non-linear story, a twisty narrative, cold-hearted gangsters who speak in a stylish patter — this is “Lucky Number Slevin,” though it is also many, many other films of the past couple decades (and particularly since Tarantino became a role model). Nobody talks like this, and no real-life schemes ever get pulled this smoothly; the only question is whether you enjoy the unbelievable way the story is told.

We bounce around through vignettes — a man loses everything at the racetrack in 1979; some shady characters are dispatched by an unseen assassin; a man in a wheelchair tells a stranger a story — before settling on a more or less straightforward thread. A man named Slevin (Josh Hartnett) is in his friend Nick’s apartment in New York City. He doesn’t know where Nick is, but two gangster bosses believe he IS Nick. And unfortunately for Slevin, Nick owes these guys some serious money.

As it happens, the kingpins hate each other. They spend their days glaring across the avenue into one another’s penthouse apartments and never leaving their strongholds for fear of being assassinated. One boss, simply called The Boss (Morgan Freeman), saw his son gunned down by his rival, who is simply called The Rabbi (Sir Ben Kingsley). Now he wants Nick — or the guy he thinks is Nick — to pay off his debt by killing the Rabbi’s son, the Fairy (Michael Rubenfeld).

Meanwhile, there is an assassin named Mr. Goodkat (Bruce Willis) floating around the periphery, apparently working for both Boss and Rabbi. There is also a cop (Stanley Tucci) who has both crime lords under surveillance and is alarmed by the sudden appearance of Slevin, who must be pretty important indeed if he’s visiting BOTH men in their penthouses.

The screenplay, written with panache by Jason Smilovic, carefully reveals and conceals information in just the right doses. We know something is up, but we don’t know what it is for quite a while, and it’s fun to keep guessing.

The direction, meanwhile, is by the stylish Paul McGuigan, whose “Gangster No. 1” mined some of the same territory and was just as neat-o to look at. Every shot is framed carefully, the sets are often strikingly modern; in a slightly better movie, the “look” would be just icing on the cake, whereas here it’s almost the cake itself.

The flick is made from good parts — Morgan Freeman and Ben Kingsley as villains?! What more do you want?! — and I’m impressed at how the ordinarily wooden Josh Hartnett pulls off his smart-mouthed character. (I should also mention, if only in parentheses, that Lucy Liu plays Slevin’s friend’s neighbor, a chatty girl who is excited to be dragged into such interesting affairs.) But the film isn’t as light on its feet as it should be. It’s often so enamored of its own cleverness that it starts to feel bloated and overlong. Something this well-thought-out ought to be just a little smoother.

B- (1 hr., 44 min.; R, abundant harsh profanity, a lot of strong violence, brief strong sexuality, some nudity.)