What are a pair of Irish hitmen doing "In Bruges"? That is, what are two colorful but hackneyed movie stereotypes doing in Belgium's most well-preserved medieval city?
The same thing, more or less, that a respected Irish playwright like Martin McDonagh is doing playing with genre-movie conventions: slumming with style while learning the ropes.
"In Bruges," McDonagh's feature debut, stars Brendan Gleeson as Ken, one half of a Laurel-and-Hardy muscle team working for a short-fused London gangster named Harry (Ralph Fiennes). Ken's counterpart -- Stan to his Ollie -- is Ray (Colin Farrell), and the two have been dispatched to Bruges to hide out after a whack has gone awry.
Why Bruges? Ray continually asks Ken the same question in much less printable language, and a lot of the film's humor comes from this itchy yobbo's uncomprehending encounter with the beauty and gravity of a foreign place. He'd rather chase beauty and lack of gravity in a comely blonde named Chloe (Clémence Poésy), who has her own secrets.
By contrast, the older and more circumspect Ken is smitten with the city: the steeples and canals, the mysterious Flemish masters whose works hang in museums, the slanting Vermeer sunlight. At one point the two gangsters stand before Hieronymus Bosch's triptych "The Last Judgment," and even Ray has to wonder at its murky power. The audience, meanwhile, is prompted to wonder which panel Bruges itself symbolizes for the men: heaven, hell, or -- ding-ding-ding, we have a winner -- purgatory.
McDonagh has other things to learn about moviemaking: burying the themes so characters don't keep tripping over them, downshifting smoothly, rather than yawing, between comedy and drama. He's still enough of a novice to toss in a surly dwarf (Jordan Prentice) -- on horse tranquilizers, yet -- while making fun of other movies' clichéd use of dwarves in dream sequences. Nor does he know yet how to end a film: "In Bruges" has more false peaks than Mount Jefferson.
Like any good playwright, though, McDonagh reveres language and performance, as well as the way playacting can provide a defense against a malicious world. Gleeson does fine work here as a thoughtful man reconciled to a bloody business, and Farrell is both funny and touching while playing Ray as broadly as he can get away with. The part is nearly a cartoon, and the actor's black eyebrows seem like Kabuki slashes of disbelief; this film provides proof that Farrell may do fresher work opposite another actor than he does as a stand-alone lead.
Why are Ken and Ray in Bruges, anyway? The discomfiting answer arrives just ahead of their boss, played by Fiennes with sleek homicidal impatience. The star appears to be set on one-upping Ben Kingsley in "Sexy Beast," which is fine since "In Bruges" is starting to flag by this point, and Fiennes' energy gets the film over the finish line.
Not without hurdles: The final scenes include more Bosch symbolism, a trendy smattering of gore, a suicide-cam shot, and the too-tidy resolution of plot that marks a gifted and promising talent taking a new medium for a spin.