(What follows is my full review, originally written for the Examiner, which was initially linked up at this spot. From now on this will be its home.)
Martin McDonagh apparently never received (or else discarded) the memo that Tarantino-style hip thrillers are out of fashion. Good thing too, because In Bruges is amusing fun, even if its conceptual hook is no longer fresh and the first and second halves of the black comic plot sit uneasily next to one another. The film ultimately displays a deft command of dialogue and character: its protagonists may seem stereotypical but, as embodied by Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, they live and breathe relaxed charm - even in the more hyperkinetic moments. (Incidentally, minor spoilers ahead...) Ken (Gleeson) and his younger protege Ray (Farrell) have been exiled to Bruges following their latest hit (in what has become the default occupation of characters in need of a job, they are professional killers). Ken enjoys the prettily medieval scenery while Ray gripes, drinks, gay-baits, makes fun of midgets (er, dwarfs), punches out Americans, and woos a sexy drug dealer (Clémence Poésy). Finally their boss, Harry (Ralph Fiennes, sounding remarkably like Michael Caine over the phone, at least to this ignorant Yank's ears), calls Ken and deliver his troubling assignment: kill Ray.
Actually, this isn't so troubling given that Ray is an obnoxious (if entertaining) lout, but the screenplay has saddled Ray with a rather unconvincing intermittent conscience. Having accidentally shot a young boy (in the process of killing a priest, which goes unremarked-upon), Ray is frequently tormented by guilt and suicidal thoughts. This is why Harry wants him offed - the crude, vulgar, pathologically violent boss apparently has a strict sense of ethics - but it's also why Ken feels compassionate towards his younger partner and frets over his mission. Actually, this central plotline is resolved about an hour into the movie, leaving the story in need of a new turn. It finds this with the physical appearance of Harry, whose character is perfectly conveyed by his first scene: after receiving frustrating news over the phone, he smashes the instrument to pieces, shrieks at his wife (she tells him that he's screaming at an inanimate object and he responds "You're a f*cking inanimate object!"), and then tenderly - as best he can - apologizes for his outburst.
Fiennes portrays this crime kingpin, who ultimately takes it upon himself to mete out crude justice, as a thug with stubborn ideals: don't kill kids, shoot your opponent but not if he refuses to shoot back, stick to every resolution you've made, and blow your bloody brains out if any of your principles are violated. With his entry into the storyline, the movie heads in a new direction: at once cartoonish and graphically violent. This darkly exaggerated mode feels awkward following the more down-to-earth first half, in which the buddies' bored irritation and restless melancholy is allowed to pull us into the film's world bit by bit. The ending of the film even takes the characters' brewing self-consciousness to its logical conclusion, with Harry and Ray metatextually haggling over which direction the action sequence can take, given their self-imposed ethical limitations.
It's the film's climax which most recalls the heyday of Tarantino imitators (about ten years ago), and while the bloody mayhem is fun, one begins to miss the fresher feel of the early passages. The stylized postmodern crime milieu is not the only thing slightly past its sell-by date; the film contains numerous passages of rather hamhanded anti-Americanism which reflect the dark days of the Bush administration, when American tourists were told to inform their foreign hosts that they were Canadian. One Canadian fails to remember this rule and is assaulted for his mistake - with Farrell delivering one of the more inspired Yank-baiting quips: "That's for John Lennon!" as he pounds his victim. (Another anti-American scene, while embarrassingly obvious in its humor - three really, really obese tourists fret about their guidebook and a perceived insult - is partially redeemed by the fact that its targets are Yankees fans.)
McDonagh's attempt to bring some moral weight into his universe - with the death of a child at Ray's hands, conveyed in flashback - is handled with discomfort. On the one hand, it seems a mere signifier, placed in the film for plot purposes and to provide character motivation, but without any real depth or weight. On the other, McDonagh sometimes seems to give it import, using it to humanize Ray and raise the stakes of the ethical questions he poses, tongue half-in-cheek. Finally, whatever attempt McDonagh makes to flesh out his postmodern, self-aware lowlife universe is negated by his instinct for the sharp line, hilariously over-the-top characterization, or quirky story development. If one is inclined to dismiss hip crime comedies as old hat, In Bruges is probably best avoided.
However, if one has patience with the "genre," seeing it not as a flash-in-the-pan fad but rather a template providing numerous opportunities for funny dialogue and humorous characterizations, In Bruges will certainly entertain. Fiennes has a ferociously good time chewing up scenery, Gleeson is warm and human in the most sympathetic role, and Farrell knows exactly how to play the ignorant but charming lout so that we're alternately laughing at and with the impatient rogue. Most of all, In Bruges avoids the temptation to over-impress; its style is effective but subdued (despite the wild detours of the story) and its performances reign in the ridiculousness while still capturing the sharp flavor of absurdity. That's about as humanist as the Tarantino-inspired movement gets, but it's a welcome development.