Phil Leonetti, a mob hit man who became a government witness, was asked in court if he thought he was ruthless. Leonetti, who had admitted to 10 gangland murders for the Philadelphia mob, said he didn’t think so.
“I know what it means to be ruthless,” he said. “But I don’t remember ever doing anything—as a matter of fact, I know for sure—I never did nothing ruthless besides, well, I would kill people. But that’s our life. That’s what we do.”
Willard “Junior” Moran, a hired gunman for the same mob, offered a similar explanation while describing his life as a contract killer.
It was like being a soldier in a war, he said. Everyone involved in the underworld knew the rules and knew that murder came with the territory.
“I never killed an innocent person,” Moran said.
But what if a hit man does kill an innocent person?
Does he feel remorse? Or guilt? Or shame?
Does his conscience bother him?
And if it does, can he do anything about it?
Those are the questions that drive Irish writer/director Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges, a dark and sobering story about loyalty, honor and relationships in the underworld.
Two Irish hit men, Ray (Colin Farrell) and Ken (Brendan Gleeson), are sent to Bruges, a picturesque medieval city in Belgium, to hide out after a hit in London goes awry.
McDonagh, who got an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay, underscores the moral dilemma at the heart of his narrative by making the target of the hit a priest. But that’s not the problem. Ray successfully blows away the good father after visiting him in confession. Their dialogue, part of a flashback as Ray ponders what he has done, establishes the cold and calculating nature of the business Ray, Ken and their boss, Harry Waters (Ralph Fiennes), are engaged in.
Ray, in the confessional, tells the priest he has murdered someone. The priest asks why.
“For money, father.”
“For money? You murdered someone for money?”
“Yes, father. Not out of anger. Not out of nothing. For money.”
“Who did you murder for money, Raymond?”
“I said you, father. What are you, deaf?”
With that, Ray raises his gun, tells the priest, “Harry Waters says hello,” and fires a shot through the confessional.
The priest stumbles out into the church and Ray fires several more shots. One strikes a young boy, praying nearby. The boy, shot in the head, and the priest, riddled with bullets, both collapse dead on the church floor.
Ken grabs Ray and hustles him away.
The death of the boy, not the murder of the priest, haunts Ray as he and Ken sit in Bruges waiting for further instructions from Harry.
Fiennes is particularly effective as the no-nonsense mob boss. For the first two-thirds of the movie, he is only a voice on the phone, but his conversations are chilling.
At one point, he tells Ken, “If I had killed a little kid, accidentally or otherwise, I wouldn’t have thought twice. I’d of killed myself on the fucking spot. On the fucking spot. I would have stuck the gun in me mouth. On the fucking spot.”
When Harry finally appears in person in Bruges, he hasn’t warmed up a bit. He’s ice cold and brutal, but in a matter-of-fact, it’s-strictly-business kind of way.
By that point Ken, about 20 years older than Ray, has undergone a change. Bruges has given him a different perspective. He appreciates the history and the architecture of the beautiful city and is content to spend time visiting sites and museums, taking a boat ride on the canal, meandering about the cobblestoned streets and taking in a view of the gothic buildings from the city’s famous bell tower. Bruges, he tells Harry in one of several phone calls, “looks like a fairy tale.”
Ray, on the other hand, just wants to go home.
While he waits, he romances a female drug dealer named Chloe (Clémence Poésy), blinds her ex-boyfriend in one eye by shooting him in the face with a blank gun and punches out a Canadian tourist that he mistakes for an American.
“That’s for John Lennon,” he says after decking the tourist who complained about Chloe blowing smoke from her cigarette in a restaurant where they were having dinner.
There’s also a racist midget who is acting in a movie being shot in the city and a pregnant innkeeper who refuses to allow a shootout in the stairwell of her bed and breakfast.
“You’re both crazy,” she tells the gunmen after they have politely asked her to get out of the way.
In Bruges provides a sometimes comedic, but just as often somber picture of a violent criminal underworld. There are rules. There is logic. There is, in fact, a twisted morality. But, McDonagh seems to say, there is little room for humanity.
Harry dismisses that thought after a murderous chase through the cobblestone streets in one of the movie’s final scenes.
“You’ve got to stick to your principles,” he says as he stands over the bodies of two victims, brandishing his gun.
It’s a line that Leonetti and Moran would appreciate.
HIT: Brendan Gleeson is perfect as the hit man who, struck by the beauty and peacefulness of Bruges, quietly reevaluates who he is and what he has done. He realizes that it’s too late for him to change, but maybe not too late for Ray.
MISS: Americans. Canadians. To the Brits, we’re all the same. Too many cheap clichés.
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “In Bruges, at its best, works like Pulp Fiction with Irish (and Belgian) accents, digressing into weird discourse and giving a bunch of actors the occasion to shine in small, peculiar roles.”—Steven Rea, Philadelphia Inquirer
CASTING CALL: Three of the principle actors have recurring roles in the Harry Potter series. Clémence Poésy first appeared as Fleur Delacour in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005). Brendan Gleeson has a recurring role as Prof. Alastor “Mad Eye” Moody and Ralph Fiennes is Lord Voldemort in several of the Potter films.
DON’T FAIL TO NOTICE: The black-and-white movie Ken is watching on his hotel room television while waiting for a call from Harry is the Orson Welles film noir classic Touch of Evil. Welles’ movie, by the way, also turns up as one of Chili Palmer’s (John Travolta) favorites in Get Shorty.
BODY COUNT: Five, maybe six depending on where you think the ending is going.
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[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]
George Anastasia is a crime reporter for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and author of several books, including “Blood and Honor” which Jimmy Breslin called “the best gangster book ever written.”
Glen Macnow was a writer for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and “Detroit Free Press.” He is currently a talk-radio host on 610-WIP in Philadelphia.
George and Glen have co-authored “The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies.”