Celebrated playwright Martin McDonagh ("The Pillowman," "The Beauty Queen of Leenane") has written and directed his first feature, "In Bruges," and, if nothing else, it's a showpiece for that Belgian city's medieval splendor. You may want to book vacation reservations upon leaving the theater, although the memory of this underwhelming movie may tarnish the sightseeing.
The story seems cooked up from the get-go. Just before Christmas, two hit men, Ray (Colin Farrell), and Ken (Brendan Gleeson), are ordered by their London boss, Harry (Ralph Fiennes), to hide out in Bruges for a couple of weeks in the aftermath of a tragically botched job involving a young boy.
Although neither hit man has known the other for long, they have a partners-in-crime camaraderie. Ken is Ray's mentor, sounding board, and taunter. He enjoys the city's glittery splendor and regards his enforced hiatus as R&R. Ray, guilty about the London fiasco and increasingly anxious about his banishment, barely tolerates Bruges. He's blind to its antique charms – at least until he discovers the pub scene.
McDonagh tries to pass "In Bruges" off as more than a crime thriller. Much as David Mamet does in his films, McDonagh sets up a gangster scenario and then proceeds to deconstruct it. The two men spend vast amounts of time jawboning about nothing in particular and when that wears thin, McDonagh hauls in eccentric side stories. I'd call them subplots except I'm not sure the film has a plot.
Ray falls for a local woman (Clémence Poésy) working on a film shoot, and one of its actors, Jimmy, a belligerent dwarf (Jordan Prentice), is featured in a number of scenes that are real head scratchers. In one, he and Ray, in the company of prostitutes and high on cocaine, have a shouting match in which Jimmy rants about a black-white race war. It's as if McDonagh found Jimmy's antics more interesting than the story. They're not more interesting, just weirder.
There's also a discomforting sideshow aura about these scenes with Jimmy, whose small stature is too often used for comic effect. For a movie that is supposed to be about redemption and doing the right thing, "In Bruges" takes an inordinate number of cheap shots.
The buddy-buddy badinage between Ray and Ken is sometimes amusing thanks to the rapport between the two actors. (Gleeson, as always, fills the screen with his roisterous presence.) But again, the cooked-up aspect of their relationship undercuts the verity. I'm also getting a little tired of movies about hit men. "In Bruges" tries to portray these guys as laborers who just happen to be in the business of offing people. Nothing comes through in the performances to indicate anything psychopathological. The only remorse Ray feels is for a job gone very bad. Presumably if the right person had been hit, he would be worry-free.
McDonagh darkens the story by introducing Fiennes's Harry late in the movie in what amounts to a standard chase. Fiennes is undeniably scary – he hasn't been this malevolent since "Schindler's List" – but he's essentially in the movie to jack up the violence quotient. Let's just say that the Bruges bell tower, all 366 steps of it, may not figure in your list of tourist attractions after you see this film.
McDonagh contrasts the picturesque storybook scenery and the bloodbaths in ways that are all too obvious. He reminds us that Hieronymus Bosch came from these parts. But his seesawing between slapstick and horror comes across as opportunistic because ultimately he cannot place the lives of these men in a credible moral context. Grade: C+
• Rated R for strong bloody violence, pervasive language, and some drug use.