In 1973, George Roy Hill directed a script by David S. Ward, and a genre was invented. The film was The Sting, and it told the story of two con men leading a coalition to pull off a Long Con on the man who murdered their friend. The great innovation of the film was that it pulled a Long Con on the audience, too - form and content blending in a perfect display of ingenuity so playful and clever that you feel honored to have been played so thoroughly by such a capable team of entertainers.

The Sting was hardly the first film to use a twist ending, even an ending that revealed much of the film we thought we'd seen was a lie. But it was certainly the first hit film whose entire purpose in life was that twist: no matter what its other pleasures (which are many), the point of the film is that moment of delighted shock when you discover that you've been led down the garden path (it's hard to imagine any other reason for its Best Picture Oscar). And this was the film's ultimate legacy: the creation of an entire class of films whose sole purpose is to fake out the audience.

If only it had led instead to a resurgence of Depression-era buddy films...

All this matters because Paul McGuigan's latest misbegotten crime caper, Lucky Number Slevin, wants nothing more in life than to be The Sting, albeit a version of that film horribly mashed up with Pulp Fiction. Let us ignore for the moment that this particular union has already produced one film, The Usual Suspects, that I really don't care for; it's still a model of screenwriterly brilliance next to Slevin.

The film opens with a scene so incredibly, unfathomably disconnected from the rest of the plot that it cannot help but be involved with a late climactic reveal. Specifically, a strange man in a wheelchair (Bruce Willis) tells a long and rambling story about a gambling-fix-gone wrong in an attempt to explain (poorly) the idea behind a "Kansas City Shuffle" con. Then he kills his listener. The story he tells is a solid ten-minute flashback, and there was only one possible way for it to connect forward, and I figured it out, figured (from the trailer) who the linking character was, and so I knew Josh Hartnett's dark secret before he ever stepped onscreen.

When Hartnett appears, it's as the improbably-named Slevin, who has come to New York to purge memories of his unfaithful girlfreind by crashing with his friend Nick. When he arrives at Nick's apartment, Nick is gone although the nauseatingly bubbly girl across the hall (Lucy Liu) is there, and Slevin begins to flirt with her before one pair of goons takes him to see "The Boss" (Morgan Freeman), a vicious gang lord; no sooner has he returned (all this in a towel, no less), than he is taken by another pair of goons to see "The Rabbi" (Sir Ben Kingsley), a vicious gang lord who is The Boss's archenemy, which is why neither of them leave their penthouses, located across the street from one another, in the film's only cute idea. The Rabbi, in addition to being a crime lord, is an actual rabbi. The film wants to make sure we get this, and so several times we hear the conversation, "Why is he called The Rabbi?" "Because he's a rabbi." Why a tough Jewish gang lord can't just choose to be called The Rabbi is unknown to me. Slevin is contracted by both sides to fill Nick's debts, while Bruce Willis flits back and forth playing both sides, and Stanley Tucci plays NYC's worst detective.

All that, mind you, is the first act. And for a while, it's sort of fun. Jason Smilovic's dialogue is best described as "hyperstylized," and while it's often painfully clear he wants to write his very own Tarantino script, some of the scenes, especially those revolving around Liu, develop a playful rhythm. But it does bog down after too much tweeness, especially Slevin, a character who continues saying things that will clearly get him beaten a lot for no reason other than the screenwriter thought his dialogue was clever.

When the plot reveal comes, about an hour in, it's agony. Not even in The Usual Suspects does a twist so thoroughly invalidate everything the audience has sat through. It was a twist I resented, something I have never done before. It makes the rest of the movie an empty exercise in style and plot mechanics, and at the end of the film it all adds up to a huge "so what?" I didn't have fun, and nothing happened, the end.

Not that the style or the plot mechanics are that interesting. After the reveal, the plot becomes a rote and predictable procedural (not that it wasn't already predictable; but at least I got to wonder how long it would take until the house of cards collapsed). And the style is unmistakable the work of a Guy Ritchie/Danny Boyle wannabe; Paul McGuigan is now 4 for 4 in making movies mostly unlike each other, all of them slavishly retreading styles better directors have perfected. Here, it's an editing scheme taken wholesale from Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. The set design is just about the only intriguing element of the film's look, and only then because it is so inexplicably 1970s-style.

All of this would be forgivable if it were any fun, and it almost is - look at that cast! Willis, Freeman, Tucci, Kingsley, all old hat at this sort of thing. Although it shows. None of them give anything they can't do in their sleep, although it's cute how Kingsley drops his accent from time to time. Amazingly, Lucy Liu is the one bright spot in the cast (I know!). Her role is so aggressively cutesy and cod-girl Friday that you'd think you'd like to smack her; but Liu sells it.

No, the big black hole at the center of this woeful failure is Josh Hartnett. I would beg of anyone to tell me what possible reason their can be for finding him desirable to put in a movie. He is not simply a bad actor, he is a vacuum of anti-talent so profound that not only does he bring down the actors around him, it is observable that the cinematography, editing, and make-up design become noticably worse when he is onscreen, like the very art of the cinema is trying to reject his presence. He is acceptable - barely - when playing villains. But as an heroic lead, he is a colossal failure. He is unpleasant to look at, and he cannot speak. He has three films in the pipeline right now. God is dead.

A final complaint: at one point, a character compares Slevin's predicament to Cary Grant in North by Northwest. Set aside that the comparison is inapt, given what the audience knows at this point, set aside that Grant outclasses Hartnett so completely that it's hardly fair pointing out that they work in the same industry; this is just a perfect example of the MST3K rule that you never remind the audience of a good movie in the middle of your bad movie.