Directed by Martin McDonagh
Starring Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes, Clemence Poesy
Release date: Feb. 8, 2008
“I’ve decided what to do with my life. I wanna be a cleaner.” — Mathilda from Leon (The Professional)
“This is madness, I’ve had enough of this “Crime and Punishment” bollocks. I’m happy here.” — Gary “Gal” Dove from Sexy Beast
“If I’d grown up on a farm and was retarded, Bruges might impress me, but I didn’t, so it doesn’t.” — Ray from In Bruges
In Bruges: The Killing Spirit Goes On Holiday
In 1994, a flurry of films about hit men swarmed the theaters in the United States. Bulletproof Heart, Little Odessa, Romeo Is Bleeding, Pulp Fiction, and The Professional introduced us to main characters that were hit men, hatchet men, cleaners, or guns for hire. These films continued a fascinating examination of the killing spirit that dates back to Frank Tuttle’s This Gun For Hire in 1942. From Alan Ladd’s Philip Raven to Jean Reno’s Leon, we have been captivated by their secret worlds and their codes of honor. The Tarantino-scripted dialogue between Jules Winfield and Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction revealed another whole level as the two talked about everything from pop culture, philosophy, religion, and what they called burgers in France. Tarantino’s film would be imitated throughout the rest of the decade. Guy Ritchie proved to be the most interesting of the directors to come after the Tarantino wave with his British gangster films: Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. Guy Ritchie seemed like the genuine article — a new wave of British Gangster films was on the rise. Jonathan Glazer’s Sexy Beast came along and set the bar very high. Matthew Vaughn’s Layer Cake came in 2004. Vaughn had been a producer on the Guy Ritchie films and by watching Layer Cake, one had to wonder who was the real genius behind the earlier films. Layer Cake raised the quality in the crime genre. Sexy Beast and Layer Cake injected some much needed vitality into the British Gangster film that had not been felt since The Hit, The Long Good Friday, Performance, and Get Carter.
Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges continues the tradition. The Irish playwright’s feature film debut is a marvel in the post-Tarantino age of crime and gangster films. He continues where Ritchie, Glazer, and Vaughn left off. He makes a significant contribution to the genre. In Bruges is not a knock-off by any stretch of the imagination. I am not sure if homage is the right word to use when talking about the film. McDonagh is in his own world. If the Los Angeles of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction exists only in his imagination, it makes perfect sense that McDonagh’s Bruges exists only in his imagination. What an imagination it is! In Bruges is the wildest travelogue since Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now and Paul Schrader’s The Comfort Of Strangers. The two veteran directors created the Venice of dreams and nightmares. Venice became its own character in the films. The Belgian city of Bruges, with its medieval architecture and canals, takes on the same organic presence. At night, Bruges is very much like the Hieronymus Bosch paintings that are on display in the film. The city serves as a wonderful backdrop for the antics and meditations of two hit men away from their native London surroundings.
The hit men, Colin Farrell’s Ray and Brendan Gleeson’s Ken, have been sent to Bruges after Ray has botched his first job in London. They are sent there to wait for further instructions from their boss, Harry (Ralph Fiennes). For Gleeson’s Ken, this is not a problem. He is eager to play the tourist and consume the city’s poetic beauty and history. For Farrell’s Ray, this is the epitome of boredom. He would rather do his sightseeing at the local pub. The first half of the film is a wonderful variation of the Odd Couple. Will Ken be able to win over Ray to explore the simple pleasures of being a tourist? Ray would much rather go out on his own and explore the city. When Ray is not insulting American tourists about their weight and why they might not want to go up narrow stairs, he wonders onto a movie set complete with a racist dwarf and the woman of his dreams, Chloe (Clemence Poesy). She may be and she may not be. But on this film set, Ray discovers what may be his version of the good life. In these situations, Ray comes to terms with who he is — coming to terms with the horrible deed he has committed. As Ray, Colin Farrell continues an impressive streak that started with Cassandra’s Dream. Within Farrell, there has always been this rawness. That rawness came out beautifully as the thug, Lehiff, in Intermission. Ray is the perfect union of the characters he played in Intermission and Cassandra’s Dream. Ray’s possesses Lehiff’s temper, but also Terry’s goodness from Cassandra’s Dream.
While Colin Farrell is very good as Ray, the film belongs to Brendan Gleeson’s Ken. As the older and somewhat more responsible of the two, the role is tailor made for Gleeson. Before becoming an actor, Gleeson was a teacher. In many ways, Ken is Ray’s teacher in the film — trying to get him interested in the city’s history and culture. In many ways, Ken is looking out for Ray’s best interests. At first, their relationship might seem to mirror John Travolta’s Vincent Vega and Samuel L. Jackson’s Jules Winfield in Pulp Fiction with the witty banter back and forth between two friends. But the relationship between Ray and Ken is more akin to father and son. Gleeson’s father-like Ken steals the film. Gleeson is a wonderful actor. In Bruges returns him to the crime genre in which he excelled long ago with memorable roles in the films I Went Down and The General.
John Boorman has used him many times since The General in the films The Tailor Of Panama and Country Of My Skull. He is an incredibly versatile actor whose work includes roles in Braveheart, Gangs of New York, 28 Days Later, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Dark Blue, Breakfast On Pluto, The Butcher Boy, Kingdom Of Heaven, Michael Collins, and many other films. He has also played Professor Alastor ‘MadEye’ Moody in the last two Harry Potter films. His incredible resume only adds to the world weary Ken. Gleeson is the film’s heart. Martin McDonagh made the Oscar-winning short Six Shooter with Brendan Gleeson in 2006. They have a very good working relationship.
If the first two-thirds of In Bruges plays as a hybrid of Don’t Look Now meets Pulp Fiction, than Mr. McDonagh shreds the tablecloth from the table. The director reveals his true colors by introducing us to one of the most memorable third act characters since Orson Welles’ Harry Lime in The Third Man. Ralph Fiennes’ Harry is an unholy, sadistic mix of Amon Goeth from Schindler’s List, Lord Voldemort from the Harry Potter films, and Tommy DeVito from Goodfellas wrapped up in one neat package. Harry is their demented boss who has sent the two of them to Bruges. Harry could give Ian McShane’s Teddy Bass and Ben Kingsley’s Don Logan from Sexy Beast a run for their money.
He becomes the film’s central figure. It turns out he sent the two to Bruges because he had visited the city as a child and the experience had touched him. Harry’s entrance in the film will test the honor and courage of Ray and Ken. The startling third act gives the film a shot of intensity.
In Bruges continues the myth and allure of the hit man. Ray and Ken are its latest additions. There is a code of honor among killers for hire. In Bruges pays very close attention to this code. Jean Reno’s Leon in Luc Besson’s The Professional said it best:
“No women, no kids, that’s the rules.”
Who can forget the murder of Mathilda’s (Natalie Portman) brother at the hands of Gary Oldman’s Norman Stansfield — one of the most shocking murders since Henry Fonda’s Frank shot and killed a child in Once Upon A Time In The West. In Bruges revisits this code of honor in its way. The best genre films contribute something new and if they are really done well, they should make you feel something as well. In Bruges achieves these modest goals and then some.