Marty (Colin Farrell) is trying to write a screenplay. He's got a great title — "Seven Psychopaths" — and a not-so-good concept: It's really about peace and love. He's getting help from his amped-up buddy, Billy (Sam Rockwell), when Billy isn't working his dognapping racket with his oddball pal, Hans (Christopher Walken). But when the beloved dog of a gangster (Woody Harrelson) gets snatched, Marty, Hans and Billy (plus pooch) are forced to hide out in the California desert.
That's basically the plot of Seven Psychopaths, a dark comedy written and directed by Martin McDonagh, the so-called "bad boy" Irish playwright. (This is his second film feature, after 2008's In Bruges.) It's fitting, then, that he's rounded up a gaggle of cinematic "bad boys" — from elder statesmen like Walken and Harry Dean Stanton to mid-career players like Harrelson and Farrell. There's even a meta-wink across genres: The film opens with squabbling hitmen, played by actors who also portray gangsters on HBO's Boardwalk Empire.
But don't let the seemingly spare plot dissuade you. Seven Psychopaths is an entertaining tangle of sidebars, stories-within-stories and imagined scenes from Marty's eventual movie. Plus, you are also watching an actual movie called Seven Psychopaths, written by a real-life Marty, and which features, yes, seven psychopaths.
McDonagh's intricately constructed film is a smorgasbord of homage and (affectionate) take-down of the violent-crime feature, particularly that slicker subset that is already self-aware of being hipper. In Seven's running meta-narrative, the characters endlessly debate the creation and execution of a successful crime thriller. Few tropes are left out in Seven: the vintage cars; the pet-loving villain; the road trip to nowhere; the climatic shoot-out; the boys-club vibe; the non-stop comic banter; and the eviscerating gunshots. (You could see this film cold — without being familiar with the genre — but its pleasures are designed for the initiated.)
It may seem a bit too clever by half (or by seven). It's certainly easy to make fun of violent films, while dishing out plenty of the same; no head is safe from being blown to bits here. And the film loses its verve toward the end as the jokes and meta-jokes get played out. But for the most part, McDonagh makes the ride fun, and by the credits, we even care a bit about all these psychopaths.
Especially the laconic Hans. Christopher Walken is a national treasure: a late-in-life comic genius who can make crossing a road look funny, and effortlessly shift his face from deadpan to demented. And his idiosyncratic delivery of the most banal words ranked among the film's biggest laughs.