In Bruges (United Kingdom/Belgium, 2008)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

For its first two-thirds, In Bruges is an intelligent, gently paced thriller about what happens to hitmen when they screw up. The movie crawls at a deliberate pace for most of its running length, allowing the characters to be fleshed out and offering opportunities for mordant humor. As one might guess from its title, there are also some gorgeously scenic shots of the Belgian city Bruges, where the action takes place. Unfortunately, the film's final act doesn't come close to equaling what precedes it. Once the shooting starts, everything collapses, and the ending is the kind that causes head-shaking. It's as if the filmmaker realized he wrote himself into a corner and had to resort to a contrivance to bring things to a close.

The picture opens with Ray (Colin Farrell) and Ken (Brendan Gleeson) arriving in Bruges. These two friends are a portrait of opposites. Ray is impulsive, irritable, and acts like he's had one too many cups of coffee. His initial reaction to Bruges is that it's "a shit hole." Ken, on the other hand, is calm and passive. He takes life as it comes. And he loves Bruges. The men are there following their latest job in London for their boss, Harry (Ralph Fiennes): the killing of a priest. Unfortunately, all did not go well - there was collateral damage. So they have been sent out of the country to cool their heels and await further word from Harry. Ken views this as a vacation - an opportunity to sight-see in the historical city. Ray, on the other hand, isn't interested in seeing the sights, so he hooks up with a pretty local girl, Chloe (Clémence Poésy), with the view of finding a more enjoyable activity, preferably horizontally. Then Harry calls.

In Bruges has its dark moments, but there's amount of humor sprinkled throughout, occasionally in unexpected places. The scenes featuring Jimmy the dwarf (Jordan Prentice) mock movies that use dwarves for dream sequences before introducing a really bizarre sequence (although not a dream) featuring Jimmy, two prostitutes, and a stash of drugs. Ken and Harry's conversations, while not without a certain amount of tension, are tinged with comedy. Especially noteworthy is the way Ken handles Ray's absence when Harry calls. There are also a few good one-liners tossed around. (After reading a profanity-laden message from Harry, Ray - who has a fondness for the f-word - remarks, "He swears a lot.")

In Bruges, which is the product of first-time feature writer/director Martin McDonagh, contains a lot of nice little touches, but it suffers from a climax that's too short on suspense and too long on improbabilities. I can't list the latter without spoiling the ending, but suffice it to say there are at least three incidents that stretch credulity beyond the breaking point. The worst offender is the one by which everything is wrapped up. (If you see the movie, it's accompanied by a quote about sticking to one's principles.) It's disappointing because In Bruges appears to be building up to something it never achieves.

The acting is top-notch. Colin Farrell, who seems to be gravitating increasingly toward smaller films, effectively channels his manic energy. He and Brendan Gleeson display chemistry in the Odd Couple vein, occasionally giving rise to instances of humor. Ralph Fiennes plays one of the most twisted roles of his career, a perfect accompaniment to his portrayal of the chief Harry Potter villain, Voldemort. Clémence Poésy provides a nice romantic diversion for Ray, but may be most noteworthy for a strong resemblance to Claire Danes. (She, like Fiennes and Gleeson, is a veteran of the Harry Potter series - she played Fleur in The Goblet of Fire.) As Jimmy, Jordan Prentice is fine, proving that Peter Dinklage is not the only talented dwarf actor.

In the final analysis, while there are some pleasures to be gained from watching In Bruges - especially during the first 75 minutes - the film's discouraging climax and conclusion make it difficult to recommend. McDonagh appears to have fallen victim to a common failing of filmmakers - the hope that viewers will care enough for the characters that they'll overlook plotting deficiencies. Unfortunately, it rarely works that way. It's because the characters are well developed that the way the screenplay toys with their fates is hard to excuse. In Bruges tantalizes with possibilities but ultimately frustrates.

In Bruges (United Kingdom/Belgium, 2008)

Director: Martin McDonagh
Cast: Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes, Clémence Poésy, Jordan Prentice, Thekla Reuten
Screenplay: Martin McDonagh
Cinematography: Eigil Bryld
Music: Carter Burwell
U.S. Distributor: Focus Features
Run Time: 1:47
U.S. Release Date: 2008-02-08
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1