Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Gun crazy

This week's movie about hit men, In Bruges...yeah, I understand, you've flipped over to the next blog, the one with guacamole recipes. Believe me, I kind of wish I weren't writing this either, but Focus Features is opening it this Friday and it's on my watch so let's have done with it as quickly as possible.

This week's movie about hit men, In Bruges...God in heaven, is there a more worn-out subgenre than hit men packing hearts of gold beneath their Glocks? OK, maybe anything involving serial killers, or Kate Hudson pitching woo at an aging stud. It's even beyond the point of combining the three, with hit lady Kate Hudson slashing her way to true love. There is simply no pulp left in this fiction. The guys who crank out Epic Movie and Chick Flick or whatever those parody things are called are long overdue to give hit man movies a sharp poke in the ribs and eyes.

This week's movie about hit men, In Bruges...the difference here, though it amounts to little in the end, is that it's the first feature written and directed by Martin McDonagh. McDonagh won an Oscar for a short film, Six Shooter, but is best known as the down-and-dirty playwright of the sick-soul-of-Eire hits The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Lieutenant of Inishmore . In Bruges is something of an expansion on the earlier short, with co-star Brendan Gleeson playing another middle-aged widower who spends some time aboard a train and intimations of the Grim Reaper hanging in the air. He is Ken, who, along with his protege Ray (Colin Farrell), is sent to the medieval Belgian city to cool his heels after a hit gone bad in London.

Their employer, Harry (Ralph Fiennes) has sent them to the "fookin' fairytale-land" setting to give Ray, who is understandably a little downhearted after the blown assignment, a taste of finer things--but Ray, bored with churches and history, is more drawn to a movie set. "They're filming midgets!" he exclaims, as he proceeds to get involved with said "short arse" American film star Jimmy (Jordan Prentice) and a young woman (Clemence Poesy) also adrift in the city. But not all is what it appears to be, as real and reel intersect n scenes reminiscent of Fellini's "Toby Dammit" segment in the omnibus Spirits of the Dead, and the combustible Harry drops his mildly paternal facade, setting out for Bruges himself to fix a situation complicated by Ken's equally fatherly concern for Ray.

If Ken had been more concerned for Ray, he would not have let him take on such a big job (a mishap involving a priest and a little boy, only the latter whom the non-clerical McDonagh impishly sheds any tears for) by himself, but as I have written before, TWBNMT (There Would Be No Movie Then). There is not all that much of a movie in any event. McDonagh's most fantastic play, The Pillowman, was still rooted in a kind of naturalism, and he has no particular panache for the surreal juxtapositions the film makes. (It took Fellini some time to get there, and when he did it was I think to the detriment of a great career--but "Toby Dammit" is exceptional.) "Shock" dialogue exchanges during a coked-up blowout Ray gets into with Jimmy, involving a race war between blacks and whites, come from nowhere and go right back, and grate rather than illuminate. (It's as if McDonagh, knowing that dwarves aren't as unsettling as they used to be, had to make Jimmy a surprise racist to renew mileage on the cliche.) The humor isn't as sharp or as quick-witted as in his plays, which are joyously, raucously funny.

Crucially, neither McDonagh nor his cinematographer, Eigil Bryld, get enough of a fix on the city, best-remembered on film from 1959's The Nun's Story--if you're going to call your movie In Bruges, you need to lock it down in the viewer's mind with some specific location or recurring motif, like the Vienna of The Third Man or the Venice of Don't Look Now, two other films it recalls. Bruges (which the presskit is obliged to give a pronunciation for; best at the multiplex, or calling for tickets on Moviefone, when you're on your own and stumped) never emerges as a character in its own right. Ray calls it "hell," but it never registers beyond an imposing loveliness that all the bloodletting (restrained by McDonagh's theater standard) fails to obscure.

The acting has its compensations. Gleeson is sweet as Ken, or as sweet as a hit man can be, and he has a nice relationship with Marie (Thekla Reuten), a pregnant hotel owner who is thankfully spared the indignities of the recent Shoot 'Em Up. Fiennes tries too hard--the specific kind of profane villainy that comes easier to a Michael Caine takes more effort for him to achieve, though he has his ribald moments as he assumes centerstage. Best is Farrell; one-dimensional as a lead in a string of unfortunate films, the actor is showing greater flair in character parts, here and in the lame Cassandra's Dream. With scripts to equal his particular, unsung gifts (he needs to knock off the brooding; with his Irish charm and looks, and the flair for comedy shown here, I think he would be a dynamite romantic lead, though not with Kate Hudson) his future could erase an uncertain past.

So, then, In Bruges, a new hit man movie. Neither the best nor the worst of its ilk, it will have to do till the next one comes out, probably in a week or two.


Brooks of Sheffield said...

I have to say I think movies about hit men have almost no value, not even as entertainment anymore. I may be a prude, but I've always found the idea of hit man as protagonist revolting. And stupid. There are no hit men with hearts of gold. Hit men—and I don't know any, mind you, but I feel I'm on solid ground—are all sociopaths. They have to be or they couldn't do their job. Here's a bright idea for all you filmmakers out there: write a movie about the victim. MUCH more interesting person.

Robert Cashill said...

Fortunately I think there are more hit men in the movies than in real life, though the occasional contract killing (usually a pathetic spouse vs. spouse deal) makes the news.

Good as it is, POINT BLANK kind of defined the template for this sort of thing post-noir, and the variations continue 40 years later. Most are pretty awful; the LE SAMOURAIs or THE KILLER (John Woo), which recall the earlier noir prototypes, are few and far between.

THE KILLERS is exactly that you're asking for, made 62 years ago and obviously well ahead of its time.