Even before making the darkly comic hitman film In Bruges, Martin McDonagh drew comparisons to Quentin Tarantino. In the 1990s, McDonagh built a rock-star rep as a playwright, with his penchant for sadistic violence and pungent profanity. His play The Beauty Queen of Leenane (twice staged in Atlanta) resembles an Irish spin on Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?. It wasn't much of a stretch for critics to liken his work to Pulp Fiction's video-store auteur.
For his first feature film, McDonagh only emphasizes the similarity. In Bruges follows a bickering pair of hired killers as they lay low in the Belgian city of Bruges (pronounced "Brooj"). If Tarantino made a Pulp Fiction prequel about the Travolta character ordering that Royale with Cheese on his European tour, it would probably feel very much like In Bruges.
Unlike a generation of other Tarantino wannabes, McDonagh shows shrewd judgment in what he borrows. In Bruges refreshingly avoids kitschy songs or pop-culture references and doesn't overexert itself with hyperactive editing or camera movement. With snappy dialogue, credible personalities and matters of integrity at stake, In Bruges gives hipster thrillers a good name.
Two Irish guns for hire – fatherly Ken (Brendan Gleeson) and impetuous Ray (Colin Farrell) – make a deadpan comedy duo reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy, only the skinny one is the peevish one. Following a murder in London, the pair waits in Bruges until they get a call from their cockney mob boss. Ken tries to interest Ray in seeing the sights of "the most well-preserved medieval town in the whole of Belgium." Ray shrugs, "I grew up in Dublin. If I'd grown up on a farm – and was retarded – Bruges might impress me. But I didn't, and it doesn't."
As the duo plays its waiting game, In Bruges' rambling structure turns out to be less random than it appears. When Ray tries to chat up gorgeous Chloë (Clémence Poésy) on a film location, the sight of a dwarf actor inspires him to yammer about the high suicide rate among little people. At first it sounds simply like amusing, throwaway chat, but the dwarf turns out to be more than a running joke, while the mention of suicide hints at Ray's mental state. We discover the London hit went wrong, leaving Ray anguished with grief and putting the killers in a difficult position.
In Bruges confirms that Farrell can be a dynamic screen actor in the right project. Big productions such as Oliver Stone's Alexander or Michael Mann's Miami Vice usually leave him stranded, but he blossoms in smaller films such as this one (or the 2003 Irish dramedy Intermission). Farrell sympathetically captures Ray's pangs of conscience, but gives a primarily comedic performance full of funny little touches, such as the way he simultaneously brushes his teeth and shakes his contact lens case when he tells Ken about Chloë.
Tamping down Ken's slow burn, Gleeson could be the benevolent planet around which Ray spins in an erratic orbit. In Bruges features a quirky cast of ugly Americans and long-suffering Europeans, but the most memorable performance comes from the surprise movie star playing the cockney mob boss. He Who Shall Not Be Named provides a delightful variation on his recent spate of villainous, A-list turns.
McDonagh has racked up some impressive credentials as a new filmmaker. He won the Best Short Film Oscar in 2006 for "Six Shooter" (which also starred Gleeson), and the Sundance Film Festival selected In Bruges as this year's opening-night film. In Bruges proves to be a smart, technically accomplished debut with engaging characters, but also displays the Achilles' heel of his stage work.
Despite being an arresting storyteller, McDonagh frequently traffics in light, disposable themes that don't quite justify savage behavior in the action (although his pitch-black drama The Pillowman took a glimpse into the heart of darkness). The blazing, promising playwright boldly takes on a new medium, but In Bruges feels more like a step sideways, not forward.