Review: In Bruges
5 stars (out of 5)
by R. Kurt Osenlund
For every dozen or so perfunctory Rush Hour sequels that come down the pike, there are one or two savvy gems like In Bruges that turn the buddy movie on its head. Alexander Payne achieved it beautifully with his ripe road trip Sideways in 2004. Writer/director Shane Black (whose Lethal Weapon franchise is proud father to the Rush Hour films) did it in 2005 with his consistently fresh Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. Now comes this brazenly irreverent Irish comedy, which despite all of its hard words and bullet holes, has a surprisingly warm, beating heart.
Written and directed by London native Martin McDonagh (who won an Oscar in 2006 for his short film Six Shooter), In Bruges (pronounced “broozh”) follows two Irish hit men (Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson) as they hole up in the Belgian tourist trap after a London hit gets botched. Ray (Farrell) is a beer-guzzling philistine with nothing but contempt for the medieval city, while Ken (Gleeson) is the experienced veteran who sees its history and architecture as ways to sharpen his cultural palette. You may think you know where this film is headed (a pair of unlikely pals come together under unfortunate circumstances, bond, and emerge as best buds and better people as a result), but In Bruges manages to trample nearly every convention laid in its path, and in effect steps up as something true and fiercely funny.
As they await phoned-in instructions from their hilariously profane boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes), Ray and Ken bide their time. Their itinerary consists of sightseeing, popping in the occasional pub, stumbling onto a movie set featuring a gorgeous local blonde and a testy American midget, having one riotous encounter after another, and in between, reflecting on both their friendship and their “profession.” It is in these moments that the film catches the viewer off-guard most pleasantly. The London job was rookie Ray’s first real assignment, and in the midst of the assassination, he inadvertently shot a child in the head. The incident has left him a suicide case with heavy sins to atone, while still trying desperately to retain the youthful, womanizing ways to which he’s accustomed. Ken is the shoulder on which he cries (often literally), and when Harry gives the order to make Ray the next target, Ken is forced to choose between loyalty and duty.
While I’ve never seen 2000’s military drama Tigerland, which reportedly put Colin Farrell on the map, I think it’s safe to say that In Bruges features the actor’s finest performance to date. If Oliver Stone’s poorly realized Alexander proved anything, it’s that Farrell is not a chameleonic performer. He’s a smoldering leading man, served best with a side of heart-rending emotional distress. In 2002’s Phone Booth (which, like Tigerland, was directed by the hit-or-miss Joel Schumacher) he singlehandedly elevated an average-at-best movie by expertly embodying a deeply flawed character. Here, the stakes are significantly higher, and Farrell ups his game significantly in response. And as Penelope Cruz showed with her Oscar nominated turn in 2006’s Volver, some foreign actors are just naturally more effective when working in their native tongue. As Irishman Ray, the blood-in, blood-out Irish Farrell displays more comfort and honesty than he has in any of his previous roles. He creates a character both likable and pitiful, and in tearful scenes, the desperation in his expressive eyes is painfully human.
McDonagh is graciously aware of the fact that if you have interesting characters playing out an interesting story in a truly interesting place, most of your work is already done for you. That his direction is air-tight, his actors are top-notch, and his scenarios are both entertaining and profound, become added flair to the ensemble. Though it serves as the punch line for probably 60 percent of the film’s jokes, Bruges is an undeniably beautiful place that looks magical on screen. To echo an observation made by the maliciously romantic Harry, “it’s like a fairy tale land.” Ancient structures, winding canals, and cobblestone streets highlight its picturesque appeal, and the ways in which it’s constantly referenced and mocked in the script afford the film a delightful, reflexive irony. And as most great vacations reveal of most great destinations, the colorful, often seedy inhabitants of the city are half the fun.
In Bruges is great stuff, frame by frame. It takes hardly a single false step, is often alarmingly and welcomingly intimate, and still doesn’t skimp on action and grit. It succeeds in making you admire every character, all of whom are, fundamentally, very bad people. It’s smart enough to be recognized as a European film, while engaging enough to attract audiences in the States. Unfortunately, it will likely be forgotten by year’s end, but it’s the best movie I’ve seen so far in 2008.