Thursday, February 14, 2008

In Bruges: Hitmen with your best shot

Few mysteries baffle like the persistence of movies about hitmen. Why we’re supposed to be so in love with those who assume this vile occupation that almost no one can relate to is beyond my critical powers. We can get philosophical about it, discuss the existential dilemma inherent in killing strangers for money or draw thematic corollaries with the glorious samurai genre, but that still wouldn’t explain why the vast majority of hitmen movies are so incredibly stupid, shallow and devoid of imagination.

I’d be curious however to question English playwright-turned-filmmaker Martin McDonagh on the appeal of hitmen flicks, since McDonagh doesn’t seem stupid or shallow or content to ape Tarantino and yet has chosen to make his feature debut in just this over-harvested field. In Bruges is basically your hitmen buddies go on holidays and get sensitive movie. Among other questionable choices it stars Colin Farrell. The surprise comes only as you get well into the film: it’s not that bad.

On orders from the boss, Ray (Farrell) and Ken (Brendan Gleeson) hightail it the opulent Belgian medieval village of the title to hide out and await instructions after the proverbial job gone wrong. While elder, gentler Ken yearns to kick back and sightsee the abrasive-tongued Ray just wants to booze up and forget what we gradually learn was a horrific accidental killing dealt out by Ray’s own hand. Compulsively following a perverse obsession with dwarves (I’m not making this up), Ray winds up sneaking onto the set of some godawful Euro-co-pro art film and snagging a fetching Dutch AD, who as it turns out is also heavily involved in criminal activity.

This playing as a comedy at least half of the time, the blokes do have some winning one-liners become increasingly sympathetic. Gleeson’s pretty easy to love and Farrell, despite some grating overacting of the face, gets more interesting as his character opens up about what’s really eating him. Whether or not these guys are plausible cold-blooded career killers is a question perhaps best-posed to the professionals, but when a supremely nasty Ralph Fiennes shows up in the third act and the heavy shooting starts they look comfortable enough blowing each other way, I guess.

While McDonagh remarkably manages to weave much audacity and crudity into a narrative so rife with guilt, loneliness and suicide without becoming entirely glib, the actors do a solid job of basically asking that we all agree on how totally bogus this all is and get on with splattering brains and pleading for redemption. The truth is that In Bruges never entirely redeems its flaws, but it’s a not too shabby a start for a career in movies.

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