Bruges is a quaint little city in Belgium, full of historical buildings and scenic canals. It seems like a lovely place to visit, but not for those who crave action and excitement. The film “In Bruges” is sort of a love/hate letter to the town, celebrating its innocence while simultaneously lamenting its dullness, all while using it as the backdrop for a deliberately out-of-place action picture.

Patti Behler
Colin Farrell: still not James Bond. (Courtesy of Focus)

Colin Farrell (“Miami Vice”) and Brendan Gleeson (“Beowulf”) play two Irish hitmen who are forced to hide out in Bruges as the result of a botched operation. Immediately, their contrasting personalities become apparent: Ken (Gleeson) relishes the opportunity to sightsee, while Ray (Farrell) takes an instant disliking to the place and declares it a “shithole.” Both actors clearly enjoy their roles here (notice their expressions during a tranquil boat ride), and play off of each other well. It’s especially nice to see Farrell loosen up and play the half-drunk, sarcastic Irishman, a role more suited to his personality, especially compared to the hard-boiled tough guys he plays in American movies.

From this point it appears that “In Bruges” will become a simple, mismatched-buddy comedy with European flair. However, the movie surprises by taking the time to delve into the lives and troubles of these two men. Ray, in particular, is especially shaken up over his recent sins, and questions what will happen to him in the afterlife. He sees Bruges as his own personal hell, but the city really acts as a sort of purgatory for he and Ken, as well as for all the other lonely and bizarre people who float into their lives.

There’s a lot of humor here, but it has a dark tinge. “In Bruges” is built on guilt, desperation and fear, yet still manages to be extremely funny. There’s even a dwarf named Jimmy (Jordan Prentice, “American Pie Presents Beta House”) who’s in town to shoot a dream sequence for a movie. Generally any dwarf in a film’s supporting cast is only used as a cheap attention-grabber. But it doesn’t feel that way. He has time to develop his own surly, sarcastic personality. In fact, Jimmy uses his demeanor to steal the movie’s biggest laughs.

But not everything is so loose, though. The archetype of evil himself, Ralph Fiennes (Voldemort from the “Harry Potter” series), turns up near the end as a frustrated mob boss with a score to settle. His presence ushers in the film’s blisteringly violent third act, in which moral codes are questioned and where lives are trivialized. The innocence of Bruges contrasts so sharply with all the chaos that it raises the movie to new heights of absurdity.

Bruges is a paradise and a nightmare, a tourist trap and a death trap all rolled into one. Writer-director Martin McDonagh (“Six Shooter”) masterfully peels back the layers of the town while doing the same for his own story. One of the characters declares, somewhat ironically, that no one is fit to die without a visit to Bruges. In spite of everything else that happens, by the end, it’s hard to disagree.

Rating: 3 and 1/2 out of 5 stars
In Bruges
At the Michigan Theater
Focus

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