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Arts & Culture

'In Bruges' Gives Us Hitmen On Holiday... Sort Of

Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell play hitmen in "In Bruges."
Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell play hitmen in "In Bruges."

Irish playwright Martin McDonagh makes his feature film writing and directing debut with "In Bruges" (opening February 8 at Landmark's Hillcrest Cinemas), a darkly comic tale of two hitmen on holiday in the idyllic European city that calls itself “the Venice of the North.” Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell play the Irish killers. McDonagh previously worked with Gleeson on his Oscar-winning short "Six-Shooter."

The idea for “In Bruges” came to McDonagh about four years ago when he was actually in Bruges. During a weekend in the picturesque Belgium city famous for its architecture and canals, McDonagh’s mind began to wander and he conceived a pair of characters that might react to Bruges in very different ways. The two characters eventually became Ken (Brendan Gleeson) and Ray (Colin Farrell), hired guns sent to Bruges by their boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes) to cool their heels in the fairy tale town after a messy hit in England. His instructions are to go sightseeing. Ken is happy to oblige and begins reading the tour guide and hitting all the main attractions. Ray, on the other hand, is wound more tightly and seems unable to relax. To make matters worse, Harry’s cheap and he’s booked the two together in a small hotel room.

Although told to keep a low profile, Ray ends up on a movie set where he’s drawn to the novelty of a midget actor and the promise of a pretty young woman named Chloe (a lovely Clemence Poesy). He manages a date with Chloe, who’s not as innocent as she appears, but the evening finishes with two violent outbursts that are not very low profile. Ken tries to keep Ray in line and suggests that maybe this holiday isn’t quite what it seems. Maybe Harry has sent them to Bruges for a job. Ken proves to be right but when the assignment comes in, it’s not what they expected.


McDonagh has expressed a love for cinema and he comes to his first project with energy and enthusiasm. He’s not a particularly inspired director but he’s smart enough to play to his strengths as a writer. He has won acclaim for what are know as his “Galway Trilogy” (“The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” “A Skull in Connemara,” “The Lonesome West”) and the “Aran Islands Trilogy” (“The Cripple of Inishmaan,” “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” and the still unproduced “The Banshees of Inisheer”); and for his recent “The Pillowman,” about a horror writer interrogated about child murders. As a playwright, he has revealed a good ear for Irish dialogue and a strong sense of character. He puts both these skills to work in In Bruges.

Ken and Ray are a classic odd couple. Ken is easy-going, happy to obey orders and content to sit in the hotel room and read. Ray, on the other hand, is eager to women, alcohol and some kind of entertainment or excitement. Ken has a certain level of contentment and self-knowledge. He’s a hitman and he has some moral issues with that but he’s learned to live with those issues. Ray is young and troubled. Ken tries to mentor Ray and Ray tries to listen to Ken’s advice. The relationship between these two men and their lively dialogue reinvigorates the hitmen on the lam formula that McDonagh uses as his foundation.

Placing these men in the tourist town of Bruges is also inspired. The location forces them into museums where they encounter paintings depicting purgatory, and churches that prompt discussions of morality. Their reactions to this world that is very different from the one they are usually in provides for amusing incongruity.

McDonagh, who worked with Gleeson on his short film “Six-Shooter,” is blessed with a pair of stellar actors, both with a gift for gab. Gleeson and Farrell attack their lines with gusto, savoring every colorful syllable. In terms of both personality and physicality, they make an interesting odd couple. The roles are reminiscent of parts both actors have played before. Farrell can currently be seen brooding as a reluctant killer afflicted by guilt in “Cassandra’s Dream,” while Gleeson played a gangster in another Irish crime film, “I Went Down.” But both find something new in these particular characters.

The problem for the film arrives in the shape of Harry, the duo’s boss. Ralph Fiennes plays him with the same uptight, anal intensity that Ben Kingsley employed for his mobster in “Sexy Beast.”


Fiennes’ Harry is an interesting creation. A family man with a fierce moral sensibility, he also displays a short temper and a penchant for obscenity. But as the plot unfolds and Harry’s morality prompts a surprising turn in events, the film unnecessarily strains credibility. McDonagh doesn’t create a real world for his character to operate in but for more than half the movie, he creates a world that functions credibly on its own quirky terms. But the excessive and unrealistic violence that comes at the end throws the film out of kilter and pulls you out of the world McDonagh had so carefully constructed.

“In Bruges” (rated R for strong bloody violence, pervasive language, and some drug use) is a highly promising debut for McDonagh. He shines more as a writer than director but he displays a fresh, darkly comic take on life that’s quite welcome. “In Bruges” proves highly entertaining and you can forgive the faults that arise in the final reel.

Companion viewing: “I Went Down,” “Sexy Beast,” “The Odd Couple,” “Cassandra’s Dream”