In Bruges

Reviewed By Mel Valentin
Posted 02/08/08 04:09:36

"Who knew the hitmen-on-vacation premise still had some life in it?"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

The post-Tarantino movie universe is littered with the bodies of lesser writer/directors who, eager to capitalize on Tarantino’s mix of tough guys, profane language, pop culture references, and hyper-violence, produced a steady stream of cheap knock-offs (e.g., Joe Carnahan, Guy Ritchie, etc.). Only when filmmakers have turned to other, non-Tarantino sources, as, for example, Barry Sonnenfeld did with "Be Cool" and Steven Soderbergh did with "Out of Sight" (both Elmore Leonard adaptations) have contributions to the crime genre been more than negligible. For his first feature-length film, playwright-turned-writer/director, Martin McDonagh took a decidedly Tarantino premise, hitmen cooling their heels in a foreign country, mixed in art film tropes, and came up with a layered crime drama/black comedy better than the usual sub-Tarantino efforts we’ve come to know and hate.

After a London hit goes horribly wrong, elder hitman, Ken (Brendan Gleeson), and his protégé, Ray (Colin Farrell), are sent to Bruges, Belgium, to cool their heels and take in the sights until their boss, Harry (Ralph Fiennes), calls them with further instructions on their next job. While Ken is eager to explore Bruges’ medieval buildings, churches, and canals as a tourist, the foul-mouthed Ray could care less. He’d rather be back in London, getting drunk and/or getting laid. Ray may be Ken’s protégé, but his maturity level is far below what he should. As Ken complains about Bruges openly, slinging F-bombs indiscriminately, the London hit comes in sharper focus. Ray, a first-time hitman, bungled a job badly. Worse, his conscience has gotten the better of him.

Despite that or, perhaps because of those events, Ray seeks diversion wherever he can find. On their first night in Bruges, Ken and Ray encounter a film shoot. Ken has little interest in the film, but Ray becomes infatuated with an American dwarf actor, Jimmy (Jordan Price), and, more importantly, Chloë (Clémence Poésy), a young woman apparently working on the set. Chloë isn’t who or what she appears to be, but that does little to discourage Ray, who wrangles a date with her. But Ray can’t escape the past or his conscience, and neither Ken nor Ray can avoid Harry’s inevitable decision to drop in and pay them a visit in Bruges, a city Harry thinks of fondly. Of course, nothing goes as either Ken or Ray planned or wanted, but then again In Bruges wouldn’t be much of a crime drama/comedy if it did.

Given McDonagh’s background as a playwright (The Pillowman), The Lieutenant of Inishmore, The Cripple of Inishmaan, A Skull in Connemara, The Beauty Queen of Leenane), and his Academy Award two years ago for his live-action short, Six Shooter, expectations are bound to be high that In Bruges will succeed when it comes to language or dialogue and dramatic structure. To McDonagh’s credit, In Bruges does (well, mostly). An “R” rating gives McDonagh’s characters free reign to drop F-bombs wherever appropriate (and often when it’s not), but profanity-laced dialogue can get boring quickly if there isn’t more, if the dialogue doesn’t reveal anything about the characters’ inner lives or the world they inhabit. On that level, In Bruges is more than serviceable, as Ray’s profanity-laced diatribes mask inner torment and Ken’s gentle counsels reveal a man almost looking forward to the end of his life. And with a medieval history with a rich religious history, it’s not surprising that Ken and Ray’s conversations circle back to heaven, hell, and the possibility of redemption.

In Bruges unfolds like a “slow-burn” art film, with the first half of In Bruges following Ken and Ray around Bruges as they sightsee (well, Ken takes in the sights and Ray complains), introducing a variety of secondary characters, some of whom will play important roles in the third act, and developing Ken and Ray’s relatability as characters and our sympathy for them. The city of Bruges, with its gray skies and mix of modern architecture and medieval buildings also takes on the role of a character, subtly influencing Ken and Ray as they grapple with their respective dilemmas. Just as unsurprisingly for a film involving two hitmen, Ken and Ray’s past isn’t going anywhere. In fact, it’s coming right at them in the personage of their violence-prone boss, Harry (Fiennes, channeling Ben Kingsley's performance in Sexy Beast).

While Brendan Gleeson’s persuasive performance as the morally conflicted Ken isn’t a surprise to anyone who’s followed his career or simply come across one of his performances in a supporting role (e.g., "28 Days Later," "Gangs of New York"), Colin Farrell’s performance is. Better known at this point in his career for his offscreen exploits and appearances in a string of mediocre Hollywood flicks, Farrell turns in his best or one of his best performances to date as the profane, guilt-stricken Ray. His disheveled, heavy-lidded appearance belies his character’s extroverted arrogance. It’s in the quieter moments, however, that Farrell shows a depth and maturity missing from his earlier roles. Ultimately, "In Bruges" might not be the most original crime drama to come out in the last five or ten years, but it just might be one of the most emotionally and dramatically satisfying.

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