Opening with a series on non-linear vignettes that flit between a man losing his shirt at a racetrack in 1979, a man in a wheelchair telling a stranger a story at an airport and an unseen assassin killing a gangster outside a hotel, the film finally settles down long enough to concentrate on the arrival in New York of a young man named Slevin (Josh Hartnett). Arriving at the apartment, he gets mistaken for his absent friend Nick and dragged before a multi-millionaire gang leader called, simply, The Boss (Morgan Freeman). The Boss likes to talk about a 1950’s cartoon character called The Schmoo, who could change into anything that was required, and play chess. He is involved in an escalating war of attrition with his fellow gangster, neighbour and former friend The Rabbi (Ben Kingsley, here billed as Sir Ben Kingsley). The Boss wants Slevin to pay off a gambling debt by killing the Rabbi's son, the Fairy. Meanwhile, an almost-silent hit-man named Mr. Goodkat (Bruce Willis) turns up around the fringes, stepping out of shadows at opportune moments, as does a narrow-eyed cop (Stanley Tucci), who has both crime lords under constant surveillance. Lucy Liu is perky neighbour Lindsay, who plays at being an amateur detective while developing a cute crush on the battered Slevin.
Although the movie does keep you guessing, and reasonably entertained up to a point, there’s a sense that no matter how many hip pop references or slick touches are applied to it, the thing couldn't ever pay off in the way McGuigan so desperately wants it to. It’s just not there in the writing, which delights in its own complication and self-reference, but is unmistakably shallow and underdeveloped. Liu's spicy turn aside, there's nothing in the way of distraction from the not unobvious central story. McGuigan has been studying his Coppola and his Scorsese, but his results are more an homage to Guy Ritchie, himself a slavering thief, with every flavour of camera movement and jump cut employed to give much-needed pep to the criminal goings-on. What energy and fizz created in the telling doesn’t entirely make up for the film’s abrupt swerve in direction in the last act, where the smirking jokes and fluent smart-mouth are gradually revealed to disguise a sloppy lecture about complicity, revenge, wronged men and honour amongst thieves.