When famed American journalist Barbara Grizzuti Harrison said "There are no original ideas. There are only original people", she was half right. Just when you think you've seen every possible angle of the hitman genre, in comes Martin McDonagh with 'In Bruges'. The film goes where the likes of 'Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels', 'Snatch' and 'Go' have never gone before, into the world of pitch-black comedy.
The humour-laced drama follows Ray (Farrell) and Ken (Gleeson), two apparently mismatched hitmen who are banished to the Belgian town of Bruges, after a botched hit. The banisher is their boss Harry, a tough, foul-mouthed Cockney, played by Ralph Fiennes, who has an ulterior motive for sending his boys to the tourist town. The only thing the two lads have to do is to wait for Harry's call. Meanwhile Ken becomes enchanted with the medieval fairytale town that Ray can't wait to escape. All that changes however, when he starts to mix with the locals, who turn out to be a very colourful lot. When Harry does phone, he makes a tough judgement call which forces the lads to pick sides and play favourites.
Long before the Dublin International Film Festival announced that they would open this year's event with 'In Bruges' Robert Redford kicked off Sundance with the film. He announced to audiences present that McDonagh typified a new generation of filmmakers. The creator of the 20-year-old independent film festival said this generation were often artists in one field who had crossed over into movie making and these young filmmakers, born after the baby boomers, were intent on breaking new ground in cinema. McDonagh certainly ticks all those boxes. The 37-year-old London-Irish director started out as a writer, before making his feature film debut with 'In Bruges'.
The film is peppered with McDonagh's trademark humour but like his previous Olivier award-winning work, 'The Lieutenant of Inishmore' and 'The Pillow Man', it also has a dark, gritty underbelly that lurks throughout the most frivolous scenes. McDonagh won an Academy Award in 2006 for his live action short film 'Six Shooter', also starring Brendan Gleeson, which he wrote and directed. This is yet another example of his sharp scriptwriting and smart, witty dialogue - it’s a rare treat to see such fine banter exchanged by such fine actors on the big screen. Thankfully given the mix of pathos and humour in 'In Bruges', the film never comes close to crossing the line into absurdist slapstick, which has haunted films like 'Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead.'
The unlikely pairing of Gleeson and Farrell works so well that you wonder why no one thought of it before now. Gleeson is superb as always, as the aging hitman who despite his line of work manages to see all the beauty life has to offer in this town, this Venice of the North. He portrays a soft side without falling victim to cliché and still contributes generously to the comedy on offer. He's the Ted to Farrell's Dougal, who is comical as the moany reluctant tourist, although he does push his flirtation with Ardal O'Hanlon's creation on occasion. When on top form though, as he is for most of the film, he frequently retreats back into himself as he struggles to deal with the guilt surrounding the 'job-gone-bad'. Farrell is capable of portraying great depth, humour, compassion and violence in quick succession.
Even though he doesn't appear in the film until half way through, Fiennes' frighteningly hilarious turn is unforgettable and key to the film's success. Although we had a glimpse of his dark side in 'Red Dragon', the mix of McDonagh's humour creates an almost pitch perfect character. It's hard to believe he's the same man who played Count Laszlo in the 'English Patient'. His consulting a map during a high speed foot-chase on the way to a murder is one of many highlights.
The film is not without its flaws: it does drag at times, leaving you with the feeling that you're also 'In Bruges', the Farreller's version as opposed to Gleeson's happy pace. This being McDonagh's first time behind the camera could explain why the tone of the film also zig-zags between comedy and thriller mode in a confusing way. Also the film's climax is slightly disappointing but the standard of the script and performances are more than enough to make up for any shortcomings.
'In Bruges' is touching, melancholic and achingly funny, thanks to the combination of hitmen, colourful dialogue, shocking violence, quirky characters and oodles of pulp-fiction-like twists and turns. It's certainly one reason to keep Tarantino coming back.