Pulp Fiction, Get Shorty, Mr. and Mrs. Smith - hit men have become so domesticated that it almost seems rude to ask them to go out there and, you know, kill somebody. That's what made the two hit men in Michael Clayton so refreshing. They just did their jobs. They didn't feel they had to explain or redeem themselves. The two hit men in Martin McDonagh's In Bruges, however, do feel the need. And I was prepared to write it off as an Analyze This or That retread, but writer-director McDonagh managed to hold my interest all the way through, thanks in part to some snappy dialogue but also to a tone that seems unique in the annals of crime movies. Ostensibly a comedy, In Bruges cracks its jokes with a heavy heart. It tries to laugh off what hit men do for a living and fails miserably.
The hit men in question are Ken (Brendan Gleeson) and Ray (Colin Farrell), who just botched a job, with tragic consequences, and have been told to cool their heels in the sleepy Belgian city of Bruges. For Ken, who's a bit of a history buff, it's like a paid vacation. For Ray, who's not, it's a death sentence. He can't even say the town's name without sticking the word "fooking" in front of it. The movie gets a lot of mileage out of their odd-couple reactions to a place that just doesn't seem like the setting for a crime flick. But let this be a warning: There will be blood. And McDonagh isn't afraid to show the mark left by a stray bullet, even on a child's forehead. That's one way he lifts In Bruges out of the comedy realm and into the dramatic realm.
Another way is with Carter Burwell's score, which keeps leading us toward a Day of Reckoning. Sin-and-redemption is the story arc we're on, with Bruges serving as Purgatory. And if this all sounds too heavy for something that's also supposed to be light on its feet, rest assured, In Bruges knows how to have some fun. Gleeson and Farrell play off each other like an old vaudeville team, Farrell as an impulsive puppy dog whose nips always wind up drawing blood. The Irish heartthrob seems looser than he has since failing to conquer the world as Alexander the Great. And he definitely knows how to do comedy. But McDonagh wasn't taking any chances, throwing in a dwarf (Jordan Prentice) for Ray to torment. It's one of those post-PC ideas that should land the perpetrator a two-week paid vacation in - where else? - Bruges.