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Review: 'Seven Psychopaths'

Engaging characters partly redeem a muddled movie, and call to mind better caper flicks

Director: Martin McDonagh
Rating R. Running Time: 109 mins.
Stars: Woody Harrelson, Colin Farrell, Christopher Walken

Seven Psychopaths makes some promises that it doesn't quite keep, but the film compensates for that by whirling off in unexpected directions, many of them rewarding, but not all.

See also: Robot and Frank is a caper movie with a twist.

Marty (Colin Farrell) is a struggling Hollywood screenwriter who is best pals with a couple of seemingly good-natured con men (Sam Rockwell and Christopher Walken) who kidnap dogs, pretend to have found them as strays and return the pooches to their grateful owners — always making sure to "reluctantly" accept a cash reward.

It's a pretty good gig until they snatch a shih tzu owned by a sociopathic gangster (Woody Harrelson), who will let no brain-splattering kill shot go unfired until he recovers his beloved pet.

Happily, Seven Psychopaths is redeemed by some truly memorable performances. Rockwell makes us like him from the start, and even when his character turns out to be something quite different from what we thought, he's earned our allegiance to the final fade-out. Harrelson, too, is great as the gangster with a soft spot for his dog.

And then there's Walken, perhaps the most singular screen presence of our generation. His performance is full of surprises, the biggest one being that with all the psychos on hand, Walken manages to mask whether his guy is one of them.

There's bloodshed aplenty in Seven Psychopaths. If gore isn't your thing, these clever caper movies might be more what you're looking for:

Oceans Eleven (2001) 
Who knows whether the George Clooney/Brad Pitt remake will seem as dated in 40 years as the Frank Sinatra/Dean Martin 1960 original does now — for the moment, you'll find no more engaging buddies-in-crime movie anywhere.

If he'd stuck to that nice clean story line, writer/director Martin McDonagh might have had a minor classic in the tradition of Quentin Tarantino or even the Coen brothers. But because his central character is a screenwriter (almost always a bad sign — it means the film is going to explore the nature of the creative process, which is much like the butcher ushering you to the back of his shop to show you where pork bellies come from) McDonagh soon becomes bogged down in Marty's professional and personal demons. By the time the main characters all head off to the desert to pitch a tent and contemplate new screenplay concepts, we've nearly forgotten what we thought the movie is supposed to be about. And if this is what it's really about, please, let's get back to that subplot about the kidnapped dogs.

Inception (2010) 
Sure, the maze-like plot involves entering other people's dreams — but at its convoluted heart, Christopher Nolan's mind-boggling techno-fantasy is a straightforward story about a bunch of likable crooks out to snatch something that isn't theirs.

The Thomas Crown Affair (1968/1999) 
You make the call: Steamy Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway in the 1968 original or suave Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo in the 1999 remake. Both offer beautiful people, plush settings and slightly differing twists at the end.

A Fish Called Wanda (1988) 
The funniest heist film ever made remains a career high-water mark for stars John Cleese, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Palin and Kevin Kline, who won an Oscar.

Bottle Rocket (1996) 
Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums and Moonrise Kingdom were still in the future, but with his first film writer/director Wes Anderson announced a vision that remains unique among major filmmakers. Owen Wilson, Luke Wilson and Robert Musgrave are three would-be crooks who dare to dream small, yet never lose their delusions of grandeur.

How to Steal a Million (1966) 
You may never have seen this little gem starring Audrey Hepburn and Peter O'Toole as a pair of impossibly adorable first-time crooks who, for reasons too baroque to explain here, decide to steal a priceless statue from a Paris museum. Directed by three-time Oscar winner William Wyler.

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