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'In Bruges' the best black comedy thriller since 'Pulp Fiction'

In Bruges (R)

4 stars out of 4

If, like most of us, you've never heard of Bruges or, for that matter, even know how to pronounce it, don't worry. Within two minutes of the start of the movie, you'll hear its name spoken roughly two dozen times and see why it is one of the most beautiful, best-kept secrets in all of Europe.

If writer/director Martin McDonagh's name doesn't ring a bell, you'll be in the majority. McDonagh won an Oscar in 2006 for his short film "Six Shooter," which starred Brendan Gleeson. "In Bruges," McDonagh's feature film debut, might be the best black comedy crime thriller since "Pulp Fiction."

Gleeson and Colin Farrell star as hit men Ken and Ray. After a botched job in London, the two are sent to the Belgian city of Bruges by their boss, Harry (Ralph Fiennes), to chill out and wait for their next assignment. The relatively cultured Ken couldn't be happier. He'll get a chance to kick back, cruise the canals and check out the magnificent ancient architecture. Unfortunately, he'll also have to baby-sit Ray.

A Dubliner with little interest beyond chasing girls and downing pints at the local pub, Ray is what you might call unfocused. Sitting tight in a froufrou town like Bruges does not agree with him. After accommodating Ken while sightseeing in the afternoon, he's let out of his hotel cage and immediately hooks up with Chloe (Clemence Poesy), who appears to be part of a film crew shooting a movie.

That's about half of the first act and about all you should know going in. From this point on, McDonagh starts adding in what seem to be jagged pieces of a jumbled narrative mosaic, which only makes complete sense in retrospect. This guy really knows how to put together a riveting story.

Unlike Quentin Tarantino, McDonagh is not fond of out-of-sequence narrative and uses flashback just once, and only when it is absolutely necessary. He goes heavy on the dialogue in the first half and drops in the occasional pop culture reference, but you never get the feeling he's making a Tarantino rip-off. He also has a propensity to be quite politically incorrect.

Gleeson is rock solid throughout and offers excellent contrast to the manic Farrell, who hasn't been this good since "Tigerland." With arched caterpillar eyebrows and black-forest stubble adding the accent to his nervous, self-absorbed demeanor, Farrell is alternately annoying and ingratiating. You'll want to smack him and then buy him a beer.

Not showing up in the flesh until well past the halfway mark, Fiennes turns in a performance reminiscent of Ben Kingsley in "Sexy Beast." Harry's hair-trigger temper and spewing of Cockney profanity is perfect for the character, and you're never quite sure when he'll become unhinged.

The blood - most of it anyway - doesn't come to the fore until the last few scenes, and it is plentiful. You might not like the way it turns out, but you won't be unable to argue how it is all fittingly poetic. You'll also find it impossible to suppress your laughter, even at the bleakest moments. (Focus Features)

Opens exclusively at Landmark Midtown Art Cinema, 931 Monroe Drive, Atlanta. Call 678-495-1424 or visit www.landmarktheatres.com.