The jaunty hit-man-with-a-guilty-conscience movie has been made and re-made since 1997’s Grosse Pointe Blank and before, but never have the moral quandaries of paid assassins been so brilliantly explored as in In Bruges. Nominated last month for an Academy Award for Best Screenplay, writer/director Martin McDonagh’s story about two hoods hiding out in the quaint Belgian city is exquisitely balanced — toeing artfully the line between dark humor and melodrama. It’s unapologetically crass but strangely sensitive — a buddy movie with brief but explosive action, a gangster movie wrapped inside a European history lesson.
The film begins with the two contract killers, Ray (Colin Farrell) and Ken (a warm and fatherly Brendan Gleeson) holing up in the Belgian city to await further instruction from their boss, a delightfully foul-mouthed Ralph Fiennes. Only much later do we discover the reason: Ray has just botched his first job. (He accidentally killed a bystander.) He’s overcome with the horror of what he’s done, and a good portion of the film is taken up with the two exploring their ideas of sin and redemption (with cameos by Hieronymus Bosch).
But Gleeson, Farrell and Fiennes are all frequently upstaged by what McDonagh calls the fourth main character: Bruges itself. He notes that the idea for Ray and Ken’s characters was spawned by his own trip to the medieval city, which he found utterly beautiful — until he grew utterly bored with it, three hours into his visit. Thus, you have Ken joyfully touring the canals with guidebook in hand, while Farrell’s Ray stomps around like a petulant schoolboy, incredulous that he should be stuck in such a “shithole.”
The DVD underscores the gratuitous cursing in a funny, minute-and-a-half-long clip of its choicest filth but especially embraces the film’s locale. Three separate featurettes explore Bruges, including the odd “A Boat Trip Around Bruges,” which is just that: five minutes of footage of a boat quietly slipping down a canal in the morning fog, historical trivia scrolling across the screen. The movie may waffle on moral redemption, but if there’s one thing it loves/hates, it’s fookin’ Bruges. (Rated R)