Ken and Ray are two Irish hit men who've just botched a job in London, a rub-out gone wrong in which Ray did something horrible. Their English employer, a psycho crime boss named Harry, orders them to blow town till things cool down. For reasons known only to him, he dispatches them to the twinkly medieval city of Bruges, in Belgium. There, Harry orders Ken to do something horrible. Harry being quite horrible himself, Ken feels he should probably comply.
"In Bruges" is the first movie by the celebrated Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, who also wrote the script. It's an electrifyingly funny take on the Euro-gangster flick. Cut loose from his urban mooring, the volatile Ray (Colin Farrell) is miserable in his touristy new surroundings. As he tells Ken (Brendan Gleeson), "If I'd grown up on a farm, and was retarded, Bruges might impress me. But I didn't." Ray is sour and hostile. He hates the Gothic architecture, hates the perfumed lager on tap in the pubs ("One gay beer!" he barks at a bartender); he even hates all the famous Belgian chocolate on offer.
Ken, on the other hand, older and mellower, quickly turns tourist himself. With map in hand, he drags Ray through the cobbled streets and across the swan-dotted canals to climb the 13th-century bell tower and to visit the even older basilica, said to be a repository of some of the actual blood of Jesus. Ray doesn't get it. Haunted by his own bloody bungle in London, he just wants to hit the bars and get hammered. Soon, however, he finds himself caught up with a Dutch film crew, a surly midget, a couple of hookers and a luminously cute drug dealer named Chloë (a breakout performance by Clémence Poésy, who played Fleur Delacour in "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire").
Meanwhile, the excitable Harry (Ralph Fiennes) keeps calling from London with, as it turns out, a disturbing message. When he encounters difficulty conveying its seriousness, he decides to put in a murderous personal appearance; and when he finally arrives in Bruges in the flesh, about two-thirds of the way through the picture, the story ratchets up from a merely startling series of shootings and smackdowns to a new level of cutthroat comic delirium.
McDonagh is a master of bristling dialogue and sudden bloody violence, and he doesn't cheat the story by softening it. He shows us what it was that Ray did in London, and it is horrific — beyond the pale even for a hired gunman. We share Ray's self-loathing. But we also can't help laughing — usually out loud — at the ways in which Ray externalizes his disgust, turning it like a fire hose on everyone around him and blowing them away with streams of rancid verbal aggression.
All three lead actors are flawless. Gleeson anchors the wild proceedings with underplayed, melancholy warmth. And Fiennes, always a revelation, here in full Cockney honk, is a perfect blend of suburban family-man crime executive and full-on sociopath. (Dickering with a local gat merchant, he says, "I want a normal gun for a normal person.") Even in this robust company, though, Colin Farrell stands out. Gnawing at a thumbnail, swatting a midget, squinting about in paranoid confusion, he's magnetically funny. It's nice to be reminded, after some recent professional miscalculations, what an appealing and resourceful actor he is. Even "Alexander" can now be forgotten.
Check out everything we've got on "In Bruges."
For breaking news, celebrity columns, humor and more — updated around the clock — visit MTVMoviesBlog.com.