The intent of "In Bruges" is to manufacture a black action comedy, eager to tickle and horrify the audience with a rowdy display of bloodshed and cynical musings on hitman life. Unfortunately, the finished product is lost somewhere in the messily finger-painted tones; "Bruges" is a decent blast of uneasy cinema, but is ultimately crushed under the weight of its own self-adulation.
After a botched assassination, hired guns Ray (Colin Farrell) and Ken (Brendan Gleeson) are sent to the Belgium town of Bruges to avoid capture by London cops. While Ken finds the area's extensive history captivating, Ray gradually loses his patience and locates distraction with a local drug dealer and an American dwarf in town for a film shoot. When crime boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes) grows frustrated with the progress the two are making, he visits to sort things out himself, kick-starting a trail of violence that eventually points itself directly at Ray.
It's a credit to writer/director Martin McDonagh that "In Bruges" is cast so sharply. The actors save the film from itself, taking the sticky, over-polished lines and giving them a palpable dramatic weight that's missing from the writing. Gleeson and Farrell share tart chemistry as the Laurel and Hardy hitmen, bantering about the historical importance of Bruges and the weight of their guilt. They're terrific, and Fiennes adds the right dash of madness for the film's final act, swallowing Don Logan pills and shoving his way into the story, providing the film's lone moment of actual conflict.
If there was ever a case where casting made all the difference in the world, "In Bruges" would be it.
It's not that McDonagh's script isn't ambitious, it just doesn't know where to go after a nifty set-up that launches the performances off to a roaring start. Establishing Ray as a pesky free-thinker and Ken as the reflective tourist promises so much more than what "In Bruges" is willing to give. Instead, the story deteriorates into a more unorthodox journey for the characters that involves heavy drug use, Ray's fascination with dwarves, and pie-eyed discussion of an upcoming race war. Short bursts of extreme violence do nothing to slap the script awake.
Even if Ray detests his stay there, "In Bruges" does a marvelous job capturing the leisurely stroll of the city; perhaps more confident with locations than plotting. The film eventually gives way to a big-time shootout, showing some creative muscle rounding up the characters for the robust bit of endgame. It's a nice finale, but at the tail of an increasingly dreary and unsteady dark comedy.
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