There is a playful deception going on in the prosaic title of "In Bruges," evocative as it is of chamber recitals and poetry readings in medieval coffeehouses. One is tempted to add a modifying phrase before the "In," for the sake of truth in advertising: "Waylaid," perhaps. Or "Waiting for Godot." Maybe even "There Will Be Blood."
Ray and Ken, the characters played by Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson in Martin McDonagh's mercurial black comedy, are moviedom's macho response to the hooker with the heart of gold: hit men with soul. They have been sent from London to this most resplendent of Belgian destinations to chill until further notice, following a bungled assassination job by Ray.
The Godot they are waiting for is their boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes, muscling in to hilarious effect at the 11th hour), a churlish, diahrretically foul-mouthed thug who wants to keep them on ice with a Flemish Christmas until the smoke of Ray's last assignment blows over. Or so they have been told.
Redolent of Beckett's iconic tramps, Vladimir and Estragon, Ray and Ken have a quirky, theatrical give-and-take: even their surnames, Cranham and Blakey, suggest a music hall comedy team from great-grandmum's era.
Bruges' canal-veined splendor provides the proper lightning rod for their contentious schtick. Ray, the nabob, is revolted by the city's Old Europe splendor. Ken, the dilettante, can't get enough of church crypts and paintings with heavy, gilded frames.
While Ken checks off the Bruges Tourist Authority's must-see list, Ray finds romantic distraction in the company of Chloe (Clemence Poesy), a local gal working on a Felliniesque movie (dwarfs, dream sequences). Like some sinister cousin to Lewis Carroll's Alice and Dante's Virgil, Chloe leads the two British visitors into the looking-glass underbelly of this postcard-perfect town.
It's a wicked premise, and for a good part of the way, McDonagh has rudely funny sport with the notion of European tourist-fatigue: overfed American tourists, smug Canadians, mouthy Dutch prostitutes. But McDonagh, a celebrated dramatist who savvily fudged the line between light and dark in such works as "The Beauty Queen of Leenane" and "The Cripple of Inishmaan," is less sure-footed in his film directing debut. The precipitous shifts in tone and assaults on civility begin to curdle, well before the blood-splattered denouement kicks in.
As the vaudevillian assassins, Farrell and Gleeson worm their way into our affections, which is all part of McDonagh's delicate moral juggling act. Gleeson is a kinder, gentler variant on the gentleman fiend that Bob Hoskins once played. Farrell's dark Irish good looks have begun to shift as he inches into his fourth decade; the brushy, sliding eyebrows are hardening into the archetypal mask of a weeping clown. The tension is entirely apt for "In Bruges": We can laugh at Ray, but shedding tears presents a quandary.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times