"It's in Belgium," a frustrated voice-over informs. In the aftermath of a botched job, two London-based hit men are cooling off in the title city. It was the maiden murder for Ray (Colin Farrell), the narrator, a new kid who's still ill over catching a bystander in crossfire; Ken (Brendan Gleeson), fiftyish and settled into the habitual trudge of middle age, is the industry veteran who took the boy through initiation. There's the odd-couple stuff that goes with the age difference--Ken, an affable enough sort, wants to make a holiday of their hideout, seeing the sights in the perfectly intact medieval city, taking the canal tours, absorbing the altarpieces, strolling the galleries. Ray, hating the town and himself, wants to go get pissed on framboise and fuck or fight the local baraki trash (Clemence Poesy and the Dardenne Brothers' fixture Jeremie Renier, respectively).
"In Bruges" is the debut feature from Anglo-Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, directing his own script, and it's not the full on Jason Statham-esque shite the ad campaign suggests. There's a sense of thorough, symmetrical workmanship, with every incidental piece of business put to good purpose--when the stray bits (dum-dum bullets, a dwarf in schoolboy's clothing) are ready to connect, one can intuit the slotting into place a moment in advance, which makes one feel rather smart. There's a lot of this: as a chase wends through cobblestone alleys and footbridges onto the set of an arty film, calling back earlier citations of "Don't Look Now" and Bosch, it's less a working set piece than a congratulation to the cognizant viewer.
McDonagh's basic ability is undeniable: he writes carefully wrought duets for dialect, accommodates generous space for his actors to build character, and knows how to pack a scene with ballast. In one sustained shot, Ken goes through the motions in a business call with his longtime employer (the ticking time-bomb plant from "Touch of Evil" is on TV in his hotel room), suggesting a man who's learned from long years of experience just how to soft-handle his boss' eccentricities. When the conversation clicks from routine to sinister, there's a hard, gasping beat--and Gleeson's impeccable.
Then the question comes: what's the sum of these scenes? What's the angle in another hit man movie? Quips continue even at the precipice of death, nonchalant racial feints are made (this is, films have taught me, the favorite pastime of the mythical contract killer), the piss is taken out of Americans abroad. The press kit trumpets the film's humanization of murderers as though this is something boldly transgressive, when, if anything, an empathy with victimhood would be more iconoclastic (is anyone actually "surprised" to like the "bad guys" today?). What the Thirties were to the newsman, the Fifties the adman, the last fifteen years have been for the killer-for-hire. There are theses to be written to analyze the ubiquity of this figure--in films, television, video games--in the age of global capitalism unbound; I won't attempt one. I only know I've had my fill.
[Nick Pinkerton is a Reverse Shot staff writer and a weekly film critic for the Village Voice.]