Two writer/directors have given us their film takes on hit men with existential doubts about their chosen profession who work out these issues sitting in touristy hotel rooms.
In Richard Shephard’s The Matador, the magic belongs to Pierce Brosnan who made his James Bond persona look “like a Thai hooker on Sunday morning after the Navy’s left town.”
In Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges, we have Colin Farrell and Brendon Gleeson’s assassins stuck in a cramped hotel room waiting to hear from the boss and getting in trouble while they do.
Both films give us a veteran killer looking for friendship and morality in the twilight of his “career,” weave the loss of a child into the storyline, and deal with the assassin as the target of an assassin. Oh, and both of the shopworn assassins in these films have employers who they have exasperated, thus putting their lives in danger.
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As constructed by writer/director Martin McDonagh, In Bruges (pronounced, Broojh) is a simple premise. Two hit men have been sent by their boss to cool off and stay out of trouble in the picture-postcard town of Bruges which is, for the uninitiated, somewhere in Belgium.
The older veteran assassin in Ken, played by Brendan Gleeson, and his partner is Ray, played by Colin Farrell. Ken thinks it’s a chance to get a guidebook and go touristing while waiting orders but Ray thinks it’s about the biggest waste of time he can imagine. Woven through this set-up are all kinds of Tarantino-esque touches like discussions over the suicide rates of dwarves, insights into the Belgian film business and thoughts about where the “line” is for hit men and what you have to do to cross it.
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The Defending Champion
For his take on the profession, writer/director Richard Shephard decided to give us a “what if” — namely, what would happen if a normal guy ended up becoming friends with an honest-to-God hitman?
Pierce Brosnan is so damned good as the hitman Julian Noble that the film would be a winner if everything else in it sucked, but it doesn’t. Instead it adds the wonderful performance vibe of Greg Kinnear who plays Danny Wright, a salesman who hasn’t sold much lately and is way past desperation. The two come into contact in a Mexico City hotel at that exact moment where both of their lives are in crisis. Never have I liked Pierce Brosnan as much and seeing him march across the hotel lobby in only his underwear and a pair of boots is one of the funniest things that’s made it onto film lately.
Time frame is one of the big differences between these two films. In In Bruges, it’s all over a few intense days, but The Matador divides the film into two parts — the meeting and a reunion that takes place months later. Not that I think running into a hit man in a Mexico hotel room is a likely scenario as happens to Greg Kinnear in this film, but at least the friendship which develops between him and Brosnan has real character to it and a vibe that feels possible. In The Matador, there are no coincidences, the characters move the plot by being who they are. If there is a joke, they refuse to be in on it.
The friendship in In Bruges is between the older experienced hitman and the younger man who is in over his head. Colin Farrell is terrific here and his character’s problem reminds me of the wannabe gunslinger from Unforgiven who can’t deal with the real life aftermath that killing is, well, final. Both films descend into Act 3 bigger-than-life zone in ways that are slightly over-the-top given how measured what preceded them had been.
Having seen In Bruges earlier in the year, when I was in Belgium it was a natural to visit the place and see for myself what the filmmakers saw. It truly is a spectacular location. That isn’t a good reason by itself to see a film but it doesn’t hurt when it takes you on a tour to a place you’ve never been and lets you poke around.
Until I saw it, I would have told you — beyond question — that the vote here would have to go to The Matador. Sharply drawn characters, great scene construction, excellent directing and acting that really, really worked.
Then I saw In Bruges and ended up feeling exactly the same way. The real difference, I guess, is that The Matador feels slightly more commercial and American, and In Bruges feels slightly more independent and European.
Much as I loved In Bruges though, I have a feeling that the film I’ll enjoy seeing a few more times over the years will remain The Matador.