Starring: Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes, Clémence Poésy, Jordan Prentice and Jérémie Rénier. Directed by Martin McDonagh. 107 min. Rated R.
Starring: Jessica Alba, Alessandro Nivola, Parker Posey, and Rade Serbedzija. Directed by David Moreau and Xavier Palud. 97 min. Rated R.
It has great year for Colin Farrell so far. If Woody Allen’s Cassandra’s Dream was tied with Cloverfield as the first half-decent major release of 2008, then Martin McDonaghs In Bruges is the first terrific one. It is strange enough that Farrell once again is playing a killer with a tormented conscience. What is stranger still is that McDonagh’s film is the funny one, where Allen’s was stone serious.
Farrell is Ray, a professional hitman who has just botched a job. Harry Walters (Ralph Fiennes), his boss, orders Ray and partner Ken (Brendan Gleeson) to hide out somewhere for a while, until the heat dies down, somewhere out of London and but within reach — quite specifically Bruges.
For those who have never been there — which I’m guessing is most of us — Bruges is a small city on the Belgian coast, about 60 miles from Brussels and not very far from the narrowest part of the English Channel. Its central district is a tourist attraction, with its medieval architecture lovingly preserved. It’s beautiful, it’s quaint, it’s — well, in Ray’s eyes, it’s crushingly boring. He’d like to be somewhere else, “some country where there isn’t all this fucking chocolate.”
Ray may not be the brightest bulb around, but the problem may also be simply that he’s young and full of hormones. Ken, on the other hand, is well into middle age, with a more reflective temperament. He reads books. He is delighted to be in Bruges.
They are supposed to stay in their hotel, awaiting further instructions from Harry, but Ray can’t take it, so they head out into the night. Ray stumbles upon a film set, where Jimmy (Jordan Prentice), a little person, is acting in a dream sequence. Bruges has canals, if not quite like Venice; we’re told the film is an homage to Nicolas Roeg’s dwarf-in-Venice thriller Don’t Look Now. To Ray, it is as though he has truly stumbled into a dream; his sheer delight — “They’re filmin’ midgets!” he exclaims — is itself a delight to behold.
In addition to the inherent thrill of seeing a movie shoot, there is the added attraction of Chloё (Clémence Poésy), a local who is working on the production. Ray is stunned he is able to make a dinner date with her, since he thinks she is way out of his league. (Farrell manages to make Ray’s troubles connecting with women believable — no mean feat, given that he is, you know, Colin Fucking Farrell.) Ray gets into all sorts of unwise involvements; and, when Harry finally calls with instructions, things get really dicey. Eventually, Harry will have to come to Bruges himself to take care of business.
In Bruges is a bit like an Irish-accented version of the Travolta/Jackson sections of Pulp Fiction, though McDonagh’s comic timing is somewhat different from Tarantino’s. None of the leads are known for comedy, although Gleeson was funny in Lake Placid and Fiennes’ voiceover work in Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit was a hoot. But Farrell’s roles have been relentlessly serious, and — not to take anything away from the others — the big surprise here is just how hilarious he is.
Fiennes’ clipped, rapid-fire delivery is also wonderful. Harry — I am going to make a wild guess that his name is a tiny homage to mob boss Harry Flowers in another Roeg film, Performance — sounds and looks very much like Ben Kingsley’s Don in Sexy Beast. So much, in fact, that it is either yet one more homage or (another wild guess) a part McDonagh originally wrote with Kingsley in mind. At one point, Harry accuses Ken of sanctimony, saying, “Don’t come over all Gandhi,” which would have been intolerably arch spoken by Kingsley, but works well here.
In Bruges shares a bizarre number of elements with one of my favorite films from last year, Hong Kong director Johnny To’s Exiled, even though the chronology is such that this has to be pure coincidence. The latter takes place in Macau, which also feels like a centuries-old preserved village; like Bruges, it is a tiny enough city that it doesn’t strain credulity when all the characters keep running into each other, which happens in both movies. Both involve hit men with conflicted loyalties; to be more detailed about the similarities would constitute plot spoilage, so I won’t go any further.
The Eye comes by its similarities to a Hong Kong production more obviously: It is a remake of the Pang Brothers’ identically entitled 2002 HK hit, which had a brief run in the U.S. the following year. Directors David Moreau and Xavier Palud (who made the overrated French thriller Them) and screenwriter Sebastian Gutierrez (Snakes on a Plane) cleave very close to the Pang film in many ways, yet the result is far less satisfying. (To be fair, the Hong Kong production was not all that original itself, borrowing from The Sixth Sense, The Mothman Prophecies, and a whole spate of Japanese horror films.)
Jessica Alba stars as Sydney, a concert violinist who has been blind since an accident at age 5. After a successful cornea transplant, Sydney can not only see: She can see what other people (Joel Haley Osment excepted) cannot — dead people. And not just dead people, but “escorts,” the terrifying dark specters who (if you will) spirit souls away to God knows where. She also sees scary flashes of the cornea donor’s life. To save her sanity, she must convince her sourpuss therapist (Alessandro Nivola) to get the donor’s name and accompany her on a field trip to Mexico to find out how the donor died.
Some sequences are almost shot-for-shot recreations of the HK version. A few of the changes (Mexico standing in for Thailand) seem neutral; others are positive (a whole new take on the original’s ghost restaurant scene). Perhaps the most dubious move is making Sydney a virtuoso. In the Pang Brothers’ movie, the young woman’s musical skills are limited; she is part of the string section of an all-blind ensemble. After her operation, she is booted out of the orchestra; the idea that the transplant has destroyed the good parts of her old life sets up a red herring — an alternative psychological explanation for her visions and subsequent breakdown.
But the main problem in the translation is the casting. Alba is easy on the eyes, she certainly works hard, and the result is adequate. But she cannot compete with Angelica Lee Sin-Je, whose performance deservedly garnered the most important Best Actress awards in both Hong Kong and Taiwan. Lee has the advantage of a more vulnerable, childlike appearance than the athletic Alba. But on top of that, she really did a phenomenal job in what was her first major role.
Still: This one is better than One Missed Call.