Martin McDonagh sure has his own idea of dark comedy. Of the many ways the writer-director could have made fun of Americans in his movie about two London hit men (Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson), he chooses some interesting ones: There's the requisite family of big fat elephants, of course, but also a whiny, rude, horse-tranquilizer-taking racist dwarf. The dwarf gets off easier; he at least apologizes for being an American. I know what you're thinking: "If only I could shed these pounds and be a suave British writer who makes hip movies featuring wise-cracking dwarfs."
And boy is McDonagh evenhanded. As his main characters bide their time in the quaint, historic city of the title, hiding out after a botched hit, McDonagh, a lauded London playwright of Irish descent, manages to lob grenades of wit against a constellation of stereotypical types. Europeans (read: non-Brits), we find, are, get this, goofy left-wing nuts -- except of course when they are goofy right-wing nuts. If they are neither, they are amoral wastes, like the Amsterdam prostitute the film includes so she can say she's an Amsterdam prostitute.
"In Bruges" launches attacks against fat black women, dwarfs, skinheads, intellectuals and European art-film makers (consider yourselves served). If you've been waiting for gays to get theirs, wait no longer. McDonagh gives it to everyone without reservation, taboo or Tattoo.
The only people who get off easy, of course, are his hit men, who, probably because they are Londoners of Irish descent, are killers with hearts of gold. Well, at least the older father figure, Ken (Gleeson), is. His buddy, Ray (Farrell), is still developing his gold heart under an incompetent, surly, crude, unsophisticated, bullying, incurious exterior. "The boy," as Ken fondly refers to him, just needs a chance to change.
But, you say, we just saw "the boy" punch a woman in the face in a restaurant and yell "That's for John Lennon!" at her boyfriend, because they are Americans. (How many Irishmen have thought of that one?) We learn later the couple is actually Canadian, but that revelation (over my head, but strafing comedy, I presume) doesn't come until after Ray's date, Chlo‰ (Clémence Poésy), kisses him for his bravado.
After Chlo‰ later tries to rob him and Ray learns that's how she makes part of her living, he laments that he lost his one chance with a "nice" girl like her. Chlo‰ is so moved she kisses him again. Ray, relieved, then steals from her. One thing is certain, when McDonagh wants to keep an audience guessing, he really pulls out all the stops.
It's true that throughout most of storytelling history, developing identifiable characters with strong personalities and motivations was considered a good thing. But, like the irascible Ray often puts it, screw history! McDonagh has developed fathomless characters with no discernible motivation, people churning in a so-deep-with-wackiness plot it doesn't have to have a story. One can only suppose that dark comedy is all the more clever when the action doesn't make any sense.
That's why, when Ken and Ray's boss, Harry (Ralph Fiennes), are in a shootout at a historic landmark no one hears the gunfire. In dark comedy, crowds sipping ales and taking in views mere footsteps away must be in on the gag.
That's why when, minutes later, one of the two men falls from the landmark at the feet of the passersby below and the other emerges from the bottom, prompting another shootout and foot chase, nobody stops them. All this commotion would bring the police 10 times out of 10 in your city, but not in McDonagh's Bruges. Not even blocks away, when the two criminals stop for several minutes of banter, do we hear the sound of the po-po. 9-1-1 is a joke in this town. A dark joke.
We know this because many minutes later, with the men still shooting and racing, though no more stealthily, one of those episodes of amnesia has descended upon the entire city, whose citizens now loll and meander through the streets as if nothing happened. No sirens sound, no whistles shriek, and no one rushes to see what all the fuss is about. Only "In Bruges." Americans, dwarfs, realism look out for the sequel. (R) 101 min. S