Sundance played it safe with its festival opener In Bruges, a shaggy, not-all-that-good-but-good-enough gangster comedy starring Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, a beautiful Belgian blonde and a “midget,” as the un-PC screenplay puts it about a hundred times. With its expansive and verbose criminal dialogue and abrupt passages of gunplay staged as slapstick, In Bruges is violent, intermittently amusing and very 1992. That, of course, was the year Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs played Sundance and established both the enduring and quixotic career of its writer/director and the genre In Bruges does its best to walk in the footsteps of, though with a European gait.
Gleeson and Farrell are Ken and Ray, two Irish hit men out of London who’ve just pulled off a job and been told to take a powder in Bruges, a Belgian city dating to the medieval era. In the time-honored fashion of 10,000 movie potboilers, Ken and Ray are a mismatched pair; in fact, for perhaps a quarter of the film, the viewer could be forgiven for thinking he or she had wandered into an old Richard Dreyfuss/Emilio Estevez Stakeout comedy, in which the two leads do nothing but fire guns and bicker like Neil Simon’s Odd Couple about their opposite views on things like hamburgers and tofu. Here the main bone of contention isn’t the usual food or grooming but “Culture” with a capital “C”: Dowdy but soulful Ken finds Bruges’ various galleries and medieval buildings soul-stirring, while Ray just wants to find a momentary girlfriend or another pint of stout.
Into this Garden of Ennui comes malicious and violent but strangely honorable British gangster Harry (Ralph Fiennes, gamely disappearing into a Scouse accent and severe crew cut) with orders for Ken regarding collateral damage caused by the “hit” he and Ray have just performed. Meanwhile, in a shockingly underdeveloped romantic subplot, Ray has fallen in love with Belgian hometown beauty Chloe (the improbably named Clemence Poesy), primarily because the camera lingered over her in slow motion the first time he saw her.
All this is just a set-up for the usual brute farce escapades involving long meandering comedic exchanges about nothing much, punctuated with ferocious gunplay and makeup effects that wouldn’t be out of place in a movie about the war in Iraq. Derivative In Bruges surely is, but 16 years on, it may be unfair to accuse it of emulating Tarantino, who really hasn’t walked this side of the street for at least three movies and well over a decade now. Perhaps writer/director Martin McDonagh thinks he’s imitating the Guy Ritiche of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels fame. Perhaps he thinks he’s remaking Snatch.
The odd thing is that McDonagh would choose to imitate anybody in his first feature film. An established playwright in both England and America who has two Olivier awards and four Tony nominations to his name, McDonagh also won the 2006 Oscar for his live-action short Six Shooter (also starring Gleeson). Why, one wonders, given so much pedigree, has McDonagh decided to ply his already established talents in the form of a ventriloquist’s dummy through which brogued-up variations on the Samuel Jackson/John Travolta scenes in Pulp Fiction get to speak?
Though almost all the actors are indulged over-much, they still save In Bruges by being capable of expanding to fill the vast amount of performing space McDonagh has given them. Gleeson is more wry and effective than he’s been in years—a sort of Irish Oliver Hardy but with the saintly forbearance of Stan Laurel peaking out from beneath his multiple chins. Farrell, who’s been threatening the world with a comeback for some time now, gives the second funniest performance of his career (after the one he turned in as Oliver Stone’s Alexander ) and goes a long way toward earning the fresh chance Hollywood may or may not feel like giving him. Although it’s doubtful that more than a relative handful of Industry types will see this very European picture when Focus Features releases it next month, if at least a couple of those viewers are casting directors, we may be seeing Farrell in S.W.A.T. II or Phone Booth: The Next Call before you know it.
Cast: Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes, Clemence Poesy and Jordan Prentice
Director/Screenwriter: Martin McDonagh
Producers: Graham Broadbent and Pete Czernin
Genre: Gangster comedy
Rating: R for strong bloody violence, pervasive language and some drug use
Running time: 101 min.
Release date: February 8, 2008 ltd.
Reviewed: Sundance Film Festival 2008