I really want to go to Bruges, Belgium, right now. What a neat-looking place. If the movie In Bruges is to be believed, it is one of the most well-preserved medieval towns in Europe. The movie lets you have a few good looks at this fantastic location early on, and you can’t help but feel an attachment to it for the rest of the film. It becomes another character in a movie that is very much about characters, and not about violence or witty banter — even though In Bruges has plenty of both.

This is a movie about principles. Ray (Colin Ferrell) is an Irish hitman, new to the job, who is sent to Bruges by his boss after botching his first murder. Ray spends most of the movie discovering A) that he has principles, and B) the consequences he must face within himself when he acts against them. Ray is accompanied by Ken (Brendan Gleeson), an older, wiser hitman who thinks he has made peace with who he is and what he does. He knows he is not a “good” person, in the conventional sense, but at least he’ll hold the door open for an old lady.

Ray and Ken work for Harry, played by Ralph Fiennes. I like Mr. Fiennes a lot, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen him have as much fun on film as he does here. Harry is a man who adheres to very strict principles, and expects those around him to live up to the same standards.

It would be easy to compare this movie to the rash of post-Pulp Fiction films about criminal-philosophers, who (between acts of violence) sit in coffee shops or bars and discuss their views of the world. This is not one of those movies. We glean these characters’ philosophies, moral codes, whatever, through their actions and interactions. We learn that Ray’s obnoxious exuberance and impatience cover a soul too sensitive for the career he has chosen. We learn that Ken’s fondness for the history and culture of Bruges is his way to forget the real reason he was sent there in the first place. Even Harry, in his own way, communicates his view of the world not with a lengthy speech but through the single-mindedness with which he pursues his goal.

One thing In Bruges does have in common with the Tarantinoesque crime films of the last decade or so (at least the European ones) is a colorful cast of secondary characters. The hitmen come across a film shoot in progress, and Ray becomes instantly fascinated by a dwarf named Jimmy (Jordan Prentice), and infatuated with a production assistant named Chloë (Clémence Poésy) who may be just the right level of naughty for a fellow like Ray.

With Shaun of the Dead Simon Pegg and Nick Frost showed that it was possible to have moments of genuine, moving drama in the midst of wackiness and mayhem, and that when balanced properly the two sides enhance each other and make the whole experience that much more rewarding. In Bruges follows similar rules and finds an equally satisfying balance, although in the other direction. This is a serious film, a violent film, and a heartbreaking, poignant film. Its impact is only enhanced by the moments of straight-up silliness.

Two interesting bits of trivia:

1) Three actors (Gleeson, Fiennes, and Poésy) also play significant roles in the Harry Potter movie series.

2) The two movies I saw in theaters this week (In Bruges and There Will Be Blood) feature Ciarán Hinds — Julius Caesar of HBO’s Rome — in small roles. His part is bigger in Blood, but more pivotal in Bruges.