Friday, April 25, 2008

In Bruges

"Two manky hookers and a racist midget. I'm outta here," opines Ken (Brendan Gleeson). "I'm coming with you," his friend and fellow hitman Ray (Colin Farrell) replies mournfully, their evening's misadventures yet another blow to Ray's already jaded opinion of Bruges.

It's to this history-heavy and nightlife-light Belgian town that Ken and Ray have been sent by their boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes) after a bungled job. Ray, all bored sighs and mumbled disenchantment, is like a moody teenager. "If I'd grown up on a farm and was retarded, Bruges might impress me," he grumbles upon arrival, having barely seen anything of the place, "but I didn't, so it doesn't." He only brightens up when they come across a film crew shooting a pretentious dream sequence for an art-house movie. "They're filming midgets!" he exclaims delightedly, rushing off to watch.

Said midget, Jimmy (Jordan Prentice), prefers the epithet dwarf. Ray, however, isn't above demeaningly calling him Shorty when his coke-addled rant turns to the race question. Not that Ray isn't a walking xenophobe himself. He heaps abuse on Belgium in general and Bruges in particular, gleefully gets into a fight with an American (he twats the fellow with an almost cheery "that's for John Lennon, you fucking Yank cunt") and is visibly deflated when he discovers later that his antagonist is actually Canadian.

Or how about this exchange between Ken and Jimmy:

Ken: Are you American?
Jimmy: Yes, but please don't hold it against me.
Ken: I won't. Just try not say anything too loud or crass.

Martin McDonagh's debut film 'In Bruges' is essentially a two-hander for its first half, a post-Tarantino 'Odd Couple' with its contract killer heroes (I use the word 'heroes' loosely) bonding, bickering and bantering against a picture postcard backdrop, while Jimmy and on-set drug pusher Chloe (Clemence Poesy) weave in and out of their interactions. And it's very funny. McDonagh's script zings with hilarious and quotable lines, even if you wouldn't drop any of them in front of your mother. I can't remember a film since 'Sexy Beast' with so many instances of the 'c'-word.

Take the following conversation, the film having veered into darker territory with revelations about the nature of the bungled job and Harry's arrival in Bruges to take matters in hand. Ken stands up to his boss and offers him a few home truths:

Ken: Let's face it, Harry - you're a cunt. You've always been a cunt. The only thing that's gonna change is that you'll become an even bigger cunt. Maybe have some more cunt kids.
Harry: You retract that bit about my cunt fucking kids.
Ken: I retract that bit about your cunt fucking kids.
Harry: Insulting my fucking kids! That's going overboard, mate.
Ken: I retracted it, didn't I?

The 'Sexy Beast' comparison is apt, not just for the language but in the usually suave Fiennes's full-throttle performance as a dangerous mob boss, a la Ben Kingsley's in Jonathan Glazer's film. But whereas 'Sexy Beast' lost the plot after a rivetting first half, 'In Bruges' doesn't put a foot wrong, ramping up the tension and sense of danger once Harry puts in an appearance, but without sacrificing the surreal humour or losing sight of its characters' humanity.

This last is the ace up McDonagh's sleeve. You shouldn't really give a damn about any of these characters: Ken, Ray and Harry are killers by profession (Ray's blunder, revealed at a key moment, weighs heavily against him), Jimmy is a coked-up self-important bit part actor who parties with - well, Ken put it best - manky hookers, and Chloe deals drugs and wastes herself on a thuggish skinhead boyfriend. Shit, just typing that sentence is enough to make me appreciate just how heavy-handed and grim 'In Bruges' could have been in lesser hands.

However, Martin McDonagh, an acclaimed playwright set to garner the same kind of encomium in the film world, brings enough insight, intelligence and lightness of touch to the proceedings to make you care about the characters (even Harry is a man of principles who takes care not to endanger a pregnant woman), and - Peckinpah-esque ending notwithstanding - to make you laugh out loud. The performances are uniformly excellent, with Farrell proving a revelation.

'In Bruges' doesn't necessarily want to make me go to Bruges (at a guess, it wasn't endorsed by the Belgian Tourist Board) but I do want to go back to my local multiplex and see it again.

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