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Wednesday, July 23, 2008
  DVD Review: In Bruges

In Bruges is a movie that has no business being as good as it is. That doesn’t mean it’s a brilliant film – it’s not – but a movie about smartass gangsters released in 2008 should feel tired and clichéd. But somehow it doesn’t.

The concept – two British hitmen lay low in the picturesque Belgian town of Bruges after a job – smacks of the wave of post-Tarantino crime movies that plagued the mid-to-late-90s. Movies like Mad Dog Time, Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead, 2 Days In the Valley and Truth or Consequences, N.M. (why so many of these things have places in their titles I have no idea) all exploited the It-Boy status of the world’s most famous former video-store clerk with stories about criminals with ironic senses of humour as ready to make jokes or dThe sweet romance between a drug dealer (Clémance Poésy) and a hitman (Colin Farrell)ebate the merits of various aspects of pop culture as they are to commit crimes. Some of these movies were better than others – I think I saw Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead after hearing it was pretty good, but aside from the noble attempt to resurrect Treat Williams’ career, I remember nothing about that movie, which is typically not a good sign – but “forgettable” is probably the best word to describe pretty much all of those movies (though Mad Dog Time, a.k.a. Trigger Happy, is absolutely one of the most insanely, compellingly awful movies I’ve ever seen). The bottom line is, Quentin Tarantino rightly blew minds with the one-two punch of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, and none of filmmakers attempting to become “the next Tarantino” with their own quirky crime movie had anything close to enough of his talent to pull it off.

So who the hell decided to make a movie about wisecracking gangsters in 2007? In Bruges is the feature debut for writer-director Martin McDonagh, who’s obviously no Tarantino, but then again he’s not trying to be. (He’s also not trying to be Guy Ritchie either, which is also a wise decision, one Guy Ritchie himself should really look into, judging from the been-there-done-that trailer for his new film, RocknRolla.)

The plot, as I mentioned, is pretty simple: Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson (one of my favourite character actors) play a pair of hitmen who've been ordered by their boss (a hilariously foulmouthed Ralph Fiennes, who shows up halfway through the film, at which point he begins gleefully tapdancing all over it) to hide out in Bruges, Belgium. There's obviously more to the story than just that, but McDonagh doles out the information about exactly what happened during the hit (hint: it did not go smoothly) in bits as the film unfolds. It's a cool little storytelling technique that McDonagh smartly doesn't turn into a gimmick; the way the characters casually mention plot points that fill in your understanding of exactly what happened before they arrived in Bruges feels natural, rather than expository, a trick a great many screenwriters and directors could learn from.

In Bruges pulls off something a lot of similar crime comedy-dramas fail miserably at, managing to strike a nice equilibrium between the comedy and the drama. As much as In Bruges is a film about smart-alecky gangsters, it deals with some fairly heavy subjects, and when the guns do come out, it's quite violent (there’s also a lot of casual drug use, so heads up for that if it’s the kind of thing that bothers you). It's a balancing act that many films attempt, and most fail at, but McDonagh makes it work.

I like Colin Farrell well enough, but this is the first film since his remarkable debut in Tigerland (where he rocks a southern accent; it was the first time I'd seen him and I was totally floored when I found out that not only was he not from the American south, he was Irish) that he really impressed me with his acting. For a potty-mouthed professional killer, Farrell injects the character of Ray with surprising heart and humanity. Gleeson, who in Beowulf actually managed to craft a heartfelt performance in a motion-capture CGI film (if that's not an acting feat I don't know what is) can do no wrong, and his Ken fits in Ray's life somewhere between a father and an older brother. Even moreso than Ray he's a hitman with a conscience, and as much as that's already film cliché (especially in this sort of movie), Gleeson's a talented enough actor to do something special with it.

I'd also be remiss if I didn't mention the scenery. Bruges (or "f***ing Bruges," as Farrell constantly refers to it) is a beautiful place filled with incredible medieval architecture. McDonagh says in the DVD extras that he wanted to make the city the film's fourth main character, and he succeeded if for nothing other than the town is so quiet and boring and touristy that the other characters can barely go two scenes without someone bitching about it. But McDonagh and cinematographer Eigil Bryld shoot the town beautifully, and as the story darkens they get a lot of mileage out of its gothic towers and twisting cobblestone alleys.

Great characters, excellent performances, gorgeous scenery and a sharp script elevate what should be a decade-late-and-a-dollar-short entry into the Tarantino-wannabe sweepstakes into a fun little gangster flick that really should not be as good as it is. In Bruges doesn't reinvent the proverbial wheel, but it's worth a look if you have a taste for comedy that runs a shade on the sinister side.



There's about 18 minutes worth of deleted scenes (the funniest of which is a bit in which Gleeson tries to goad Farrell into riding in a horse carriage), and like a lot of deleted scenes, they're largely smaller character moments and scenes that reinforce ideas dealt with elsewhere in the film – though there is a cool flashback sequence that further establishes the history between Gleeson's Ken and Fiennes' Harry that probably would have worked quite well in the finished film.

There's also gag reel, and it's quite funny, particularly the scenes between Farrell and Gleeson. The two have an easy, friendly chemistry that's so natural I hadn't even noticed just how good the two are together until I watched them breaking each other up during takes.

'When in Bruges' is a making-of mini-documentary that runs about 13 minutes, covering the film's genesis and encompassing casBrendan Gleeson prepares to go get himself somet and crew interviews. It's long enough to feel substantial, more than the usual PR fluff, but short enough not to drag on (in the hour-plus making-of docs I'm usually officially bored somewhere between interviews with the film's composer and the costume designer). It's interesting stuff that does a good job of fleshing out the movie. 'Strange Bruges' is a shorter featurette about the town of Bruges and how it fits into the film. Usually these kinds of extras are boring filler, but considering how much In Bruges' setting is a part of the film, it's appropriate here.

'A Boat Trip Around Bruges' is a nicely relaxing way to spend five-and-a-half minutes: it's just what the title suggests, filmed in the first person and featuring trivia about Bruges running above and below the images. It's a strange little feature, but interesting enough, and between it and the film itself, I sort of felt like I'd actually been to Bruges myself.

Finally, 'F**king Bruges' seems to be attempting to condense all the film's (considerable) profanity, as well as all the mentions of Bruges, into a 96-second greatest-hits reel. It's remarkably funny stuff. Overall this is a solid DVD package for a good movie. Can't really beat that.

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