The Pillowman Puts Us to Sleep

A sort of Let's Go: Assassinate Someone, In Bruges has a distinctive voice but doesn't say enough.

Two London-based hit men (Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson) have been sent to the Belgian town of canals and medieval belfries for two weeks for reasons that haven't been made clear to them, or us. But you know they're not going to spend the whole time sightseeing and drinking what Farrell's character Ray calls "gay beer."

That's because In Bruges comes to us from Martin McDonagh, the most exciting playwright to emerge since David Mamet and a master of intricate plotting and profoundly disturbing comedy. His plays-The Lieutenant of Inishmore and The Pillowman perhaps the best of them-have received four Tony nominations, but they have far more impact than his first movie, with its merely amusing jokes and its surprisingly smudgy plotlines. I expected more than a quirky gangster thriller with several wildly implausible scenes.

Ray thinks Bruges is a hellhole but his older, calmer partner Ken (Gleeson) suggests that they forget about killing people for a while and simply enjoy the holiday while awaiting orders from their boss (a Cockney Ralph Fiennes, all rage and jutting teeth). Their leader has taken the trouble to set them up-in a twee little hotel.

The idea of two grousing hit men forced to be roommates in a bed-and-breakfast is, like many others in this movie, fertile ground for McDonagh's violent wit. But most of these situations don't come to much of anything. In contrast to the terrible clicking into place that characterizes McDonagh's brutally funny stage work, the movie seems sketchy, as if it were written in a week.

Ray can't wait to get out of Bruges, for instance, but he comes to suspect he may be doomed to stay there for eternity. Much could be made of this, especially considering the reason why the two men are there in the first place, but McDonagh merely has Ray leave once and return once. The force that brings him back, moreover, is an absurd million-to-one shot, shoddy plotting unworthy of McDonagh.

Other threads also get cut short instead of properly woven in; there's a line about wanting a normal beer that is later reiterated when a character asks for a normal gun, but the parallelism is just thrown in there as a mild joke. It doesn't lead anywhere, nor does a bit about an antiques lover/gun dealer who keeps talking about alcoves. (Is saying "alcoves" in a Belgian accent automatically funny?) The final act is one absurd thing after another. Why would everyone wind up in the same plaza at exactly the same time?

The film works as a decent gangster thriller, one with livelier dialogue -- aggressively quirky though it is -- and freakier situations than the genre normally offers. Among the things that can get you into trouble in this movie are being Canadian and being in possession of blank ammo. McDonagh has fun with a racist drug-addled dwarf, bathes a mischievous young beauty (Clemence Poesy) in a halo of danger and gets top performances from his three main actors. Fiennes, though not as scary as Ben Kingsley was in Sexy Beast, is especially arresting and funny as the kind of crime lord who has three kids and a string of Christmas cards hung over the fireplace just so. He tells his wife he's got to leave because it's a matter of honor; she says she hopes it's not dangerous. Of course it's dangerous, he nearly shouts back: he just said it was a matter of honor, didn't he?

Such nastiness plays off the filigreed beauty of the setting, and the signature McDonagh twist--it comes about halfway through--is a coldly effective little jolt of cruelty. That's more than most crime thrillers can offer.

IN BRUGES

Directed by Martin McDonagh

Starring: Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes

2.5 stars/4

101 minutes/Rated R (graphic violence, profanity, drug use)

Kyle Smith is a film critic for the the New York Post. His website is at www.kylesmithonline.com