Academy Award winning director Martin McDonagh makes his feature length debut with this brash, noisy hit or miss actioner about a discontented hitman (Colin Farrell) hiding out in the uneventful titular Belgium town. Having just completed a job, Farrell's Ray and his partner, Ken, (Brendan Gleeson) are forced to keep a low profile by masquerading as harmless tourists in the preserved medieval style city. The more cultured Ken takes a liking to the quaint destination, but the younger, less patient Ray has no such affection for its dated buildings and picturesque canals. Instead he gets immediately into trouble, seducing an actress, offending a dwarf, and stumbling accidentally into a drug trade operation. His problems grow even more when the difficult nature of his recent job comes to light and the pair's employer, Harry, (Ralph Fiennes) takes offense to some of Ray's antics.
While In Bruges has its fair share of delightful, tongue-in-cheek, tonally original moments (a chase scene involving a character stopping to read a map comes immediately to mind), it has the feeling of being more of a fun bag of tricks than anything approaching a finely tuned feature film. It meanders and it wears thin at points. The bulk of it is riotous with the sour aftertaste of something that seems most certainly like it could have been better. McDonagh's reflexive sensibilities and skill for very funny, unsavory dialogue are redeeming attributes that will serve him well in his career. Here, though, they feel sandwiched in between angular plot points that feel mostly in service of McDonagh's unstoppable comic energy. A hitman stopping a man he’s supposed to kill from committing suicide, for example, is a funny and original gag, but dramatically it creates a certain strained sense of silliness that threatens to impede upon the film's dramatic efforts. It's admirable what McDonagh has done: merging his comic gifts with explosive action and character drama. It just never flows with quite the right energy or achieves a sensation of excellence that extends beyond borderline condescending terms such as "fun romp."
A truly "fun romp" is hard to come by, though, and In Bruges delivers as a hard-edged, hilarious action comedy that entertains from start to finish. With some fine tuning and more careful plot construction, it may have been something more. In this form, what it basically amounts to is a small pleasure built around Farrell's ability to express witty narcissism with effortless, screwball charm and McDonagh's own skills at weaving together sly humor with aggressive action sequences. It's no masterpiece but it's far from a failure for sure.