Martin McDonagh’s “In Bruges” could best be described as the love child between the films of Guy Ritchie’s ultra-cool UK gangster films and Quentin Tarantino’s ultra-hip American gangster films. Unlike its tedious parents, “In Bruges” doesn’t need to be too hip or too cool to be damn good.
It’s helps when you have three winning performances by Brendan Gleeson, Colin Farrell and Ralph Fiennes, and a director who is a scenariste first and realisteur second.
McDonagh is a four-time Tony-nominated Irish playwright who won an Oscar three years ago with his first film, a short also featuring Gleeson called “Six Shooter.” Impeccable credentials to be certain, and the kind of exceptional writing the lethargic crime comedy genre needed. Sure, “In Bruges” may have the need to add its own eccentric touches to appear cool for cats. Hitmen bickering about minute historical details, oddball secondary characters, a homunculus thespian hooked on heroin and hookers, grand tours of centuries-old buildings… in the hands of a scenarist with little or nothing to say, it would be little more than a third-rate “Pulp Fiction” wannabe.
The story, in and of itself, is pretty threadbare. Two hitman are ordered by their boss to hide out in the quaint Flemish town for a couple weeks while the heat from their latest job subsides. The solemn Ken (Gleeson), the elder hitman, is ready to let the city envelop his heart and mind, while the already jittery Ray (Farrell) is freaking out over possibly spending all that time locked up in a small hotel room, especially with another man. It’s when they defy the orders of their boss Harry (Fiennes) and spend more than their fair share of time out in the city do they find themselves getting in all kinds of trouble.
I can’t help but imagine “In Bruges” is the kind of movie Jim Jarmusch would make if the iconoclast filmmaker was trying to make something commercial, even though I am fully aware the cadence of the character’s actions and vernacular aren’t as expressionless as a typical Jarmusch film. No matter how surreal things get for Ken and Ray in Bruges, they seem to remain mostly indifferent to their circumstances, as if things like needing to karate-chop a dwarf while wasted in a hotel room with a bunch of hookers or dodging bullets through a Fellini-esque movie set in the middle of a medieval city happens to most everyone on a daily basis.
Before “In Bruges,” I haven’t been impressed by Colin Farrell in much of anything except maybe Robert Towne’s “Ask the Dust,” and yes that includes Terrence Malick’s visually evocative but dull “The New World” and Steven Spielberg’s over-caffeinated “Minority Report.” To me, Farrell has been yet another one of those never-ending series of It Boys, long on good looks and short on talent. But while his performance here won’t win any awards nor will ever be compared to the works of Laurence Olivier or Orson Welles, Farrell finally has a character that piqued my interest. As the story evolved, and Ray’s predicament became ever more tenuous, I couldn’t help but root for the guy, even if he was a murderer for hire and despite my usual reservations for tidy conclusions. Now he has me thinking that he might actually be a good actor and he just has a lousy sense of picking decent screenplays. Is it even possible for an actor’s value to be determined not by his director but his screenplayr McDonagh isn’t nearly in the leagues of a Michael Mann or Woody Allen as a filmmaker, but has been able to get a better performance out of Farrell than practically anyone else. Maybe it’s the mixture of the screenplay and his ability to play off two fine actors as Gleeson and Fiennes. Gleeson continues to be a rock of stability in most anything he does (exclusing the natural silliness of the Harry Potter films), and Fiennes finds an interesting balance between menace and pathos in his brief moments as their boss.
”In Bruges” also works beautifully thanks to the outstanding cinematography of Eigil Bryld, who has found added splendor within the historic confines of the nearly millennia-old city. Before this, I had only seen one film shot by Bryld before, “Kinky Boots,” which shared the same vibrantly subdued color scheme. Outside of a few moments of unnecessary “wild” camerawork during the final moments of the film, the look of the film is faultless, even in scenes that are probably CG-enhanced but still might not be.
”In Bruges” might not be one of those movies you must rush out to see, but it is worth your time. Not many films can walk the fine lines between farce and misfortune McDonagh forces upon himself and his crew.Rating: B+