If you could hoist a film on your shoulders and parade it through the theater for adulation and hoorays, the new British crime comedy "In Bruges" would be the one. Writer/director Martin McDonagh, an acclaimed English playwright of Irish descent, gives his characters a comedic voice so distinctive it forms its own profane dialect. His film punches and kicks like a precocious brat at the ultrastylish, ultraviolent gangster flicks that it spoofs, and its satirical spirit is married to heartfelt storytelling. It will leave you gaping (or grinning) in disbelief with a barrage of shocks, laughs and surprises that start with the opening shot and never flag until the final cut to black.

What an opening it is: crisp, concise and wicked. In a confiding tone, Ray (Colin Farrell) draws us close and explains, "After I killed him, I washed off the residue in a Burger King restroom and walked home to await instructions. Get to Bruges." And there we find him, an Irish gunman killing time in the Belgian tourist town whose cobblestone streets, canals and cafes conjure an air of suffocating quaintness.

Ray loathes the medieval podunk town. He mopes like a sulky schoolboy when his colleague Ken (Brendan Gleeson) drags him to see the sights. "I hated history," Ray grouses as they tour Gothic churches and art museums with tableaux of Judgment Day. "It's all just a load of stuff that's already happened." Ray's last murder went wrong -- it takes us some time to learn how spectacularly, life-alteringly wrong -- so he has cause to prefer amnesia.

Rather than reflect on his crimes, Ray picks silly fights with American vacationers, guzzles beer and disparages all things Belgian. The older, mellower Ken chafes as baby sitter. "You're about the worst tourist in the whole world," he scolds. Then again, with Ken's brogue, he could be calling Ray "the worst terrorist," which is also accurate. Ray is violent, sentimental and self-destructive, with each quality flaring up at the most inopportune time. He's also, oddly, a sweetheart of a guy, and while he and Ken lie low awaiting instructions from their boss, Harry (Ralph Fiennes), they develop a warm, caring relationship.

As most movie characters are written, they can feel only one emotion per scene. They may be angry, romantic, remorseful and humorous, but not all at once. The beauty of McDonagh's characters is that their passions come spilling out in a tangle, like a knot of circus clowns tumbling out of a Mini Cooper. The secondary characters and even the bit players are believable individuals. The script's female characters are thin, but McDonagh's spin on stock characters -- this one's not really a Madonna, that one's not exclusively a heart-of-gold hooker -- is richer than many.

When Harry enters the scene to tidy up loose ends, we encounter a glowering sociopath who doesn't want stray bullets injuring innocent bystanders. Studying the local gun dealer's wares, he scoffs, "An Uzi? I want a normal gun for a normal person." Both Farrell and Fiennes reveal delightful new dimensions as comedians. The scene in which they set rules for a shootout as if they were boys negotiating guidelines for a game of war ("Count to three") is not easily forgotten.

The third act is an unstable, highly explosive concoction of dazzling humor and dreadful violence. At one point it's literally raining hitmen. By the time this gory whackfest arrives, however, McDonagh's commitment to redemption has given the story a sturdy moral core.

"In Bruges" is a film you can enjoy from many angles. Film aficionados will enjoy the elaborate homage to "Don't Look Now," a chiller whose evocative use of Venice's canals is echoed here. Fans of absurdist humor can delight in McDonagh's sendup of vainglorious actors in the person of a drug-snorting, racist dwarf; when Ray fells him with a James Bond karate chop to the neck, you think, well, he was asking for it. Others will treasure the film for its sheer lunatic novelty, hanging on for dear life as it veers from knockabout to deep sadness. Discriminating viewers will be in seventh heaven over "In Bruges."

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186