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MOVIE REVIEW: 'Seven Psychopaths' lives up to hype with brilliant casting

Seven Psychopaths

(R)

3 out of 4 stars

Of the many imitators that have surfaced in the 18 (18!) years since the release of "Pulp Fiction," Englishman and Sting look-alike Martin McDonagh comes as close to aping the style of Quentin Tarantino without downright ripping it off. It helps greatly that his feature debut ("In Bruges") played out as much like a European art drama as it did a gangster thriller and he steadfastly avoids the arbitrary and scatological pop-culture references that have become QT's stock-in-trade.

While not quite on the same narrative and character development par as "In Bruges," "Seven Psychopaths" is a far more conventional crime comedy that, thanks to some beyond-brilliant casting, more than lives up to the sick-puppy attitude its title implies. At one point or another all five of the male title characters have played wigged-out crazies at least once in their career, a point certainly not lost on McDonagh. Sadly, the two female "psychopaths" (Olga Kurylenko and Abbie Cornish) aren't psycho at all, have little to do or say and are essentially regulated to window dressing.

What McDonagh's screenplay may lack in depth and finesse is more than made up for in originality and execution. Only one of the characters is a de facto mobster and just two of the others dabble in criminal activity, but all of them have more than a screw or two loose. Rather than guns, drugs, money, jewels, pilfered art or any other tired crime-story booty, the stolen object here is a cuter-than-cute ornamental pooch.

Running a relatively danger-free scam that involves stealing people's pets and then returning them for a reward, Hans (Christopher Walken) makes the huge mistake of nabbing the Shih Tzu belonging to mob boss Charlie (Woody Harrelson). Not one to suffer fools gladly, the beside-himself Charlie first executes his non-complicit dog walker (Gabourey Sidibe, "Precious") and then orders his entire crew to drop everything and find his dog.

Hans soon strikes up an uncomfortable friendship/alliance with Billy (Sam Rockwell), a BS artist who talks a mile a minute, and his buddy Martin (Colin Farrell, acting as McDonagh's surrogate), a fledgling writer with a major drinking problem. Lacking common sense and thus afraid of next nothing, Billy -- out of sheer boredom -- breaks the law in a big way solely to provide Martin inspiration and beefy fodder for his barely-there screenplay. Martin and Billy only know each other because one of them is dating the others' ex-girlfriend (Cornish).

Not long after Billy places an ad in a L.A. trade paper looking for nefarious people with shady pasts, Martin is contacted by Zachariah (Tom Waits), a repentant serial killer of other serial killers ("Dexter," much?). Constantly clutching a pet rabbit, Zachariah wants no compensation for his tale of intrigue, only a screen credit in Martin's finished script.

After 45 or so well-spent minutes establishing all of the characters and their sometimes multiple motives, McDonagh kind-of sort-of runs out of plot and resorts to a few too many road flick and stand-off cliches. He somewhat makes up for it by offering up extended flashback sequences of Hans and Zachariah in their youth and each of these subplots is rich enough to be its own standalone film.

Save for Cornish and Kurylenko (again through no fault of their own), the performances of the five guys are magnificent and -- for a movie so steeped in violent carnage -- deeply nuanced. Playing thugs and/or nutjobs isn't hard to do; doing so with flair while garnering sympathy and/or empathy is an impossibly tough nut to crack. Walken and Rockwell could easily land Oscar nominations for their performances.

Because "In Bruges" was such a strong and confident debut effort, there are some that might consider "Seven Psychopaths" to be a letdown and claim that McDonagh is suffering through a "sophomore slump." This movie isn't perfect but few are and most directors, old or new, would be glad to affix their name to "Seven Psychopaths" -- maybe even QT. (CBS Films)