By Steve Persall
Times Movie Critic
Two hit men stroll along a reservoir, waiting for their target and bantering about Moe Greene's gunshot eyeball in The Godfather. It's the kind of scene Tarantino imitations pummeled into squish fiction with repetition, and for a minute Seven Psychopaths looks like more of the same.
Two blood sprays later, we're not so certain. Two hours later, we're not sure what we saw.
Writer-director Martin McDonagh's followup to his more cohesive In Bruges is a middle finger to cliches Pulp Fiction wrought, while garishly reveling in the same hyper-ironic, pop referenced ultraviolence it lampoons. It's also a self-indulgent inside Hollywood joke, smugly calling attention to the fact that it's a movie about movies, making it less of one. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang comes to mind.
Yet for all its scattershot ways, Seven Psychopaths is frequently, distastefully entertaining. McDonagh calls Hollywood's bluffs about how graphic, abrupt and senseless movie violence should be, how little plot must connect the mayhem, and the way women in action flicks are merely obstacles to be gunned out of the way. On one hand, it's a daring protest. On the other, McDonagh just echoes what he's protesting.
There's a screenwriter hero, Marty (Colin Farrell), ready to stoop to anything to sell a script, and his loony buddy Billy (Sam Rockwell) willing to assist. Billy operates a dognapping business, stealing pampered pooches with his partner Hans (Christopher Walken) and collecting ransoms. One dog, a Shih Tzu named Bonny, belongs to short-fused mobster Charlie (Woody Harrelson), who'll pay his ransom in bullets.
Circling around this core crisis are other psychopaths of the title: a Vietnamese priest (Long Nguyen) plotting revenge for his family's deaths at My Lai, a Quaker father (Harry Dean Stanton) stalking his daughter's rapist, and marvelously haggard Tom Waits as a bunny-loving killer with a gruesome flashback to tell. The episodes only tenuously dovetail but that's the point; McDonagh wants a movie as random as its violence.
This is both a plus for Seven Psychopaths and its worst misstep. The episodic format allows Walken to play one scene addled, another wistful and others just plain weirder than usual for him. It's a fun performance as self-conscious as the rest of the movie, like Walken doing Kevin Pollak doing a Walken impression. The movie finds a degree of focus as Billy comes to fore, with Rockwell's gonzo winking at the proceedings.
McDonagh serves up several gems of audaciously violent humor but never makes a bracelet. It'll play better on DVD where chapters and psychopaths can be selected according to taste (I'd suggest Nos. 1, 2, 5 and 7). In a theater intact, it's a bloody mess. This may be McDonagh's way of working out his frustration with Hollywood but that shouldn't mean creating one for viewers.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.