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Comedy with bark, bite and pitch-black laughs

Seven Psychopaths (15)

HHH

Dir: Martin McDonagh

With: Colin Farrell, Woody Harrelson, Christopher Walken

Runtime: 110 minutes

PLAYWRIGHT turned filmmaker Martin McDonagh put a lot of currency in the bank of cool with his Oscar-winning short Six Shooter, and his debut feature In Bruges.

Both as bleak as a Chancellor's Autumn Statement and as irreverently Irish as Father Ted with a dab of Beckett, McDonagh was the newest, hippest writing kid on the block.

Four years after In Bruges he is back with more of the same, except this time with big, brassy, Hollywood knobs on.

Seven Psychopaths is not as inventive as Shooter, nor is it as fresh as In Bruges. But when the humour in this tale of serial killers and other hoodlums becomes too obvious or laddish, the calibre of the cast, and McDonagh's writing in general, are enough to get the job of entertaining the audience done.

Here is Christopher Walken on magnetic form, Colin Farrell back to his likeable flake best, and Woody Harrelson in primo screen psycho mode. When it comes to throbbing veins and wild-eyed mayhem, few do it better than the one-time mild-mannered barman of Cheers.

Appropriately for a movie that draws so heavily on film references, Seven Psychopaths is set in Los Angeles. This is not the ritzy end of Tinseltown, however. Martin (Farrell) and his pal Billy Bickle (Rockwell), live up in the burbs of Hollywood, scratching livings as screenwriter and actor respectively.

Marty has this brilliant idea for a film called, you've guessed it, Seven Psychopaths. But he's having trouble coming up with enough unusual maniacs to make the quota. Even more troublesome, he wants to create something original: "I don't want it to be another movie about guys with guns in their hands. I want it to be about peace, about love."

Besides being an actor, Billy is a partner with Hans (Christopher Walken) in a dognapping business. Dognapping, I think we'd all agree, is a crime that should be met with the death penalty at the very least. But Hans and Billy are lovely, cuddly dognappers, who fuss and coo over the pooches in their temporary care. Not even McDonagh is daring or cheeky enough to break the cardinal rule of upsetting dog lovers.

One of the duo's victims turns out to be the beloved pet of Charlie (Harrelson), a local hood who likes to shoot first and cackle later. From running low on psychopaths upon whom he can draw, thanks to Billy Marty now has them coming in through the windows.

McDonagh keeps the film's first half rocking along smartly, with Rockwell knocking out one-liners like a tennis ball machine.

The humour is raw, clever, more than a little bit angry, but funny with it. This is a moviemaker laughing at the business of making shoot-'em-up movies and those who make them. That includes those with tongue firmly in cheek. That means you, Quentin Tarantino.

While calling to mind many other films, the closest kin to Seven Psychopaths are Tarantino's movies. Like the director of Pulp Fiction and Death Proof, McDonagh is a graduate of the have-your-cake-and-scoff-it school of irony.

According to this kindergarten of thought it is okay, for example, to have semi-nude chicks as long as at some point a character draws attention to this outrageous political incorrectness and flagrant shallowness.

Similarly, you can commit an appalling act of brutality if it is all done in the best possible cartoon-violence taste. After all, you can't be sexist or sickeningly and needlessly violent if you're having a laugh, right? Discuss.

But McDonagh is not here to stir up debates. Here is a writer-director who wants to have fun, and he is bringing the audience with him for the ride. If said audience likes a mountain of movie in-jokes, all the better.

From the manner in which Billy Bickle gives himself a pep talk in the mirror, Travis Bickle-style, before a party, to the way he later pitches an ending for the film, there is a lot to recognise and enjoy.

Occasionally, the humour tends towards the adolescent and obvious (the comedy dog, wouldn't you know it, is a Shih Tzu). And the second half of the picture is so baggy you could hide another movie within it.

That said, McDonagh and his cast keep coming up with enough of the goodies to keep you entertained, whether it be guest spots by Harry Dean Stanton and Tom Waits, or simply Walken revelling in his wired-to-the-moon act. McDonagh's balance in the bank of cool remains healthy.

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