The shadow of Quentin Tarentino looms over independent cinema far too much even to this day. When Pulp Fiction debuted in 1994 it was such an inspirational film that it lead to a number of copycat projects and rip-offs. Clearly derivative films like Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead and The Boondock Saints would find themselves getting far more praise than they deserve. Then Guy Richie brought Tarentino Rip-offs to the UK with projects like Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch that had a lot of energy and very few original ideas. Consequently we were then treated to Richie rip-offs like Smokin’ Aces. At this point we had digressed to making rip-offs of rip-offs of rip-offs.
The trailer of the new Martin McDonagh film, In Bruges, made it look like another of these rip-offs. Fortunately this wasn’t really the case, though the film does fit in with a certain post-Tarentino lineage at least in genre, it’s not as stylistically derivative as any of the films listed above. Unfortunately, the film does suffer from a number of flaws of its own.
The film follows two Irish hit men hiding out in the Belgian tourist city of Bruges. Ray (Colin Farrell) is emotionally wrecked for some collateral damage he caused in his last “job” and has nothing but disdain for the quaint city of Bruges. Ken (Brendan Gleeson) has a much higher opinion of the city and is interested in seeing some of the cultural sites. Ken has a much colder outlook toward his line of work, but maintains that he generally tries to live a moral life. The crime boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes) has given them specific instructions to be ready to receive a phone call which Ken suspects will be instructions for a hit they’ll carry out in Bruges.
Perhaps the biggest problem the film suffers from is that its tone is subject to some rather jarring shifts. One scene will feel like something out of a crude crime comedy and the next will explore rather esoteric themes of redemption. Handled well this sort of duality could be put to good use, but it never quite works here. The shifts are just too jarring and too random; one never really knows when to take the characters seriously. The film also has a way of juxtaposing comedy and graphic violence in a way they clearly find ironic, but which I thought was mostly just disturbing.
McDonagh’s script delivers some very sharp dialogue that flows very nicely and never tries to be Tarentino-esque. The script also develops the characters fairly well, but not well enough for this to work as any sort of deep character study. As such the main draw here needs to be the story itself, the problem being that the story isn’t wildly substantial and relies way too much on coincidence and contrived situations. Most of the first half of the movie involves the two hitmen (mainly Ray) getting into all sorts of random hijinx in the town, then there’s a twist, after that they re-encounter all of these things in ways that aren’t always overly logical. Case in point, there’s an early scene where Ken goes to a top of a bell tower, this tower functions as the setting for one of the climactic action scenes. Once I realized that the entire first half was a series of foreshadows it suddenly became clear what was going on and I was generally able to predict everything that would happen for the rest of the movie, and I was mostly right. Many viewers may be impressed by the complex structure the film has, but I was generally turned off by the artifice of it all.
What saves this film ultimately is some very good acting from the three principle actors. I’ve always thought of Colin Farrell as a very promising actor, he’s not on the same level as a Christian Bale or an Edward Norton, but he’s done solid work in a lot of good movies. Here he has the challenge of taking a whinny, potentially annoying character, and making him sort of cool. In Farrell’s hand Ray has a really manic, blue collar charm and he makes a lot of rather strange behavior from the character somehow make sense. Though Farrell gets top billing, Ken is the real main character here, and he’s expertly played by the underappreciated character actor Brendan Gleeson. Gleeson is able to make a lot of the character’s inner turmoil clear while keeping this all below the surface. He’s able to make Ken into a rather dignified character without ignoring the fact that he’s still a thug a heart. Just as the movie is beginning to go a bit off the rails in the final act, Ralph Fiennes shows up and absolutely steals the show. Fiennes is able to take an over-the-top character and lets his character go over the top in a way that’s fun rather than off-putting.
In Bruges is a fairly fun if uneven and ultimately insubstantial film. Despite its many flaws, the strong acting, fast pace, and energy make it a fairly easy watch. I’m not entirely comfortable recommending people go to see it in the theaters at full price, but it would make a good rental for viewers who aren’t easily offended and are looking for a good crime movie.
*** out of four