In Bruges

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This review was written for the festival screening of "In Bruges."

Sundance Film Festival

PARK CITY -- Just when you think you've seen every possible variation on the hit-man genre, Irish playwright Martin McDonagh in his feature debut has fashioned an audacious combination of Old World grace and modern ultraviolence.

Chock full of wonderful lines delivered by a splendid cast, the film toys with the conventions and mostly transcends the limitations. But generous bloodletting might prove too much for the indie crowd, while artful conceit probably won't play in the multiplex. It's going to be a tough sell for Focus Features.

After a botched killing in London, Ray (Colin Farrell) and Ken (Brendan Gleeson) blow into Bruges, Belgium, like a breath of stale air. Ken essentially is baby sitting Ray for mob boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes) until the heat cools down or he figures out what to do with him.

The idea of soulful thugs on the lam among the medieval splendor of one of Europe's oldest cities is an inspired bit of storytelling conjured up by McDonagh, author of such pitch-black stage plays as "The Beauty Queen of Leenane" and "The Lonesome West."

While Ken falls under the spell of Bruges and turns philosophical, Ray finds new ways to get in trouble. On the set of a movie shooting in town, he is enchanted by beautiful Chloe (Clemence Poesy), who is not the pure princess she appears to be. A petty grifter herself, she leads Ray into a fateful barroom brawl and later a gruesome showdown with her partner in crime (Jeremie Renier), posing as her jealous boyfriend.

Things really get messy when Ken receives orders to wipe out Ray. Even for a lifelong criminal, this presents a moral dilemma. McDonagh has a fine time balancing the dark and light in what plays out like an absurdist gangster film. Things like Harry consulting a tourist map to find the quickest way to a killing or Ray karate-chopping a racist dwarf (Jordan Prentice) keep the mood from becoming too oppressive.

McDonagh is skilled at leavening the human cruelty with humor. An almost slapstick scene with a couple of overweight American tourists balances the brutal gunplay. Gleeson's girth and Farrell's hangdog sadness makes them feel like the mob version of Laurel and Hardy as they bicker and stew.

As a writer, and now a director, McDonagh understands how to fashion a scene for maximum mileage and gives his actors wonderful words to speak. Playing against type, the usually menacing Gleeson brings a sweetness to the role, while Farrell manages to be ghastly and sympathetic at the same time. And Fiennes is so comically vicious as to be almost unrecognizable.

With its gray canals, brown brick buildings and twinkling lights, there is indeed something magical about the city. But "In Bruges" is neither a world of fairy-tale gentility nor purely evil deeds. For McDonagh, it all coexists. And assisted by the glowing cinematography of Eigil Bryld and plaintive music of Carter Burwell, it's a life even bad guys find worth living.

IN BRUGES
Focus Features
A Focus Features presentation in association with Film4 of a Blueprint Pictures production
Credits:
Director: Martin McDonagh
Screenwriter: Martin McDonagh
Producers: Graham Broadbent, Peter Czernin
Executive producers: Tessa Ross, Jeff Abberley, Julia Blackman
Director of photography: Eigil Bryld
Production designer: Michael Carlin
Music: Carter Burwell
Costume designer: Jany Temime
Editor: Jon Gregory
Cast:
Ray: Colin Farrell
Ken: Brendan Gleeson
Harry: Ralph Fiennes
Chloe: Clemence Poesy
Jimmy: Jordan Prentice
Eirik: Jeremie Renier
Yuri: Eric Godon
Canadian Guy: Eljko Ivanek
Running time -- 107 minutes
MPAA rating: R

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