(CNN) -- Ten years ago, the adjective "Tarantinoesque" was an integral tool in any critic's arsenal. It seemed like every other young filmmaker was tramping the bloody, funny trail blazed by "Reservoir Dogs" and "Pulp Fiction"; rueful hitmen lurked around every corner.
Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell star as hitman waiting in picturesque Belgium in "In Bruges."
The fad faded, and the shine has gone off the Tarantino brand name, but his influence is right back with a vengeance in playwright Martin McDonagh's first feature, "In Bruges."
The film is more Tarantinoesque than anything Quentin Tarantino himself has made in years. The trouble is, that's not so much a compliment now. It's more of a mixed blessing.
Colin Farrell plays a slow-witted, volatile Irish hitman, Ray, exiled to the medieval city of Bruges along with his partner-in-crime, Ken (Brendan Gleeson), after their latest job has gone awry. Why Bruges? That's what Ray wants to know. Belgium is not high on his list of places to see, and the charms of this "fairy-tale" city are lost on him, to put it mildly: "If I'd grown up on a farm and was retarded, Bruges might impress me. But I didn't, so it doesn't," he explains.
Ken, on the other hand, is enchanted. Older and wiser, he burrows into his guidebook and laps up the ancient churches, the canals and cobbled streets. In any case, he reasons, the boss wouldn't have sent them here just to lie low; there must be a fresh assignment in the offing.
"Shoot first. Sightsee later," is a neat marketing line, but it's the reverse of McDonagh's agenda. Prettily photographed by Eigil Bryld, "In Bruges" should do wonders for the Belgian tourist biz. For half an hour or so the movie ambles along on the strength of its quirky odd couple pairing, taking in the sites: the twitchy, stir-crazy Ray reluctantly bowing to Ken's sit-back-and-wait strategy.
Farrell -- who always seems more energized when he's acting in his native Irish accent -- plays the none-too-bright Ray as a big kid, roiling between hedonism and despondency. Gleeson is more than an effective foil. His somber decency is practically beatific; all the grace notes are Ken's.
McDonagh already has an Academy Award under his belt for the short "Six Shooter," but he's better known for savage, provocative plays like "A Skull in Connemara" and "The Lieutenant of Inishmore." His first feature has spurts of cavalier violence and great gales of unfettered bile and profanity -- most of it played for shock and laughter. A racist monologue by an inebriated dwarf, for instance, or a couple of comically virulent anti-American diatribes seem designed purely to raise hackles and the stakes, as if the script had been written on a whim and a dare.
The writer's bravado can be exhilarating, but frequently the excess is all there is to hang on to: McDonagh's self-conscious, clumsy direction doesn't smooth over some ramshackle plotting.
Still, he also wants to land a few kicks where it hurts. Ray has more blood on his hands than he can bear. If Bruges is "a hellhole," it's a hell of his own making -- he stares intently on Bosch's "Last Judgment" to hammer home the point.
There's an Irish stew of Catholic guilt and expiation bubbling away in the background, and McDonagh ladles it on thick in a climax that plunges headlong into surrealism and allegory, with even the worst of the gangsters harping on an antiquated chivalric code. (The top dog is played by Ralph Fiennes, seemingly intent on out-mugging Ben Kingsley's fearsome Don Logan from "Sexy Beast.")
It has to be said, none of these men are remotely plausible professional killers, and little that they say or do would make sense in the real world. In Bruges -- well, maybe. For a spell, at least, McDonagh allows us to entertain that fancy. But for all his movie's tough talk, it's a sometimes slipshod construction.
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