Cone of Silence: Farrell and Gleeson are hit men sworn to secrecy.
Cone of Silence: Farrell and Gleeson are hit men sworn to secrecy.

Martin McDonagh has hijacked the Tarantino-goes-to-Europe genre from Guy Ritchie, and not a moment too soon. In Bruges, the Irish playwright’s feature debut, is everything Ritchie’s latest film, Revolver, wanted to be: cool, yes, but also a good story with bits of humor, existential ruminations, and innovative action involving a couple of guns-for-hire who hide in plain sight. The chill location, a gorgeous town in Belgium full of canals and medieval architecture, is just one reason the film doesn’t feel like a rip-off.

Colin Farrell is another. The Irishman who’s lately better known for carousing and poor career choices shows a never-before-seen range here as Ray, a rookie hit man whose boss exiles him and his experienced partner, Ken (Brendan Gleeson), to Bruges when a job goes bad. They’re supposed to do nothing but wait for a phone call and, presumably, think about what they did. But soon Ray starts getting antsy—“like a 5-year-old who’s dropped all his sweets,” as Ken puts it—and he hesitantly suggests that they could just grab a quick pint at the pub. Ken glares. Ray thinks, then points out how nice the historic buildings might look under the Belgian stars. Ken relents.

The pair’s differences are immediately apparent as Ken admires the scenery and starts talking dates. “I used to hate history, didn’t you?” Ray yammers before, doglike, getting distracted. “What are they doing over there?” he says excitedly. “They’re filming something—they’re filming midgets!” It’s a movie set, all right, and not only does Jimmy (Jordan Prentice), a little person, ignite Ray’s interest, he’s also captivated by Chloë (Clémence Poésy, refreshingly lovely in her non-Hollywood imperfections), whom he assumes is also an actor and asks out on a date. His chat-up includes a ramble about how “midgets” often kill themselves—when Chloë says Jimmy prefers the term “dwarf,” Ray responds, “This is exactly my point! People call you a midget when you want to be called a dwarf, of course you’re going to blow yer head off!” But she gives him her card anyway. Meanwhile, Ken and Ray’s boss, Harry, did indeed call their hotel room, leaving them a curse-laden message neatly typed out by the hotel’s owner.

Harry sounds quite like the GEICO gecko, but we later see that he’s actually Ralph Fiennes, another terrifically unexpected casting choice (and one that makes the film a bit of a Harry Potter reunion, as Gleeson and Poésy have appeared in the series). Fiennes, his hair closely butchered, is great fun as a cold-blooded cockney, and Gleeson gives the proper sarcastic solemnity to an assassin who reevaluates his life when Harry’s next order is something he’s not sure he can do.

But Farrell is the revelation. At first, his eyebrows forever arching and his expression often set to confused, he seems to be merely performing a dumb-monkey act. (Though it’s admittedly an amusing one.) It’s when the audience discovers what went wrong in that first job—in a startling, violent flashback—that Farrell’s Ray begins to show depth. The drinker, fighter, and skirt-chaser is so remorseful he’s suicidal and becomes less and less capable of covering it up with humor. (In an unsettling first-date scene, Chloë takes Ray’s confession to being a killer as a joke, which he’s barely able to play along with.) Farrell’s subtlety in portraying a walking wounded is note-perfect, naturally pulling off McDonagh’s balance of comedy and drama without letting the character or the movie devolve into a tonal mess.

McDonagh, who won an Oscar for his 2004 short film, Six Shooter (also starring Gleeson), successfully translates his theatrical strengths to the screen with dialogue that snaps without coming off as too clever, a simple but compelling narrative, and memorable scenes that are odd but believable at the same time (booze and coke can make for strange nights, after all). As the story deepens, the script offers thoughts about honor, forgiveness, friendship, discrimination, and, more humorous, tourism. In Bruges may, at its core, be just another shoot-’em-up with jokes, but it’s been a long time since someone’s gotten one right.