If Quentin Tarantino had decided to become a used-car salesman, or maybe a dentist, someone else would have made "Pulp Fiction" by now. OK; if not exactly "Pulp Fiction," then at least a funny, twisty, and operatically violent flick about chatty antiheroes going about their bad-guy business while relatively worse guys try to kill them. But reality being what it is, Tarantino's name is invariably invoked both when someone mangles the blueprint (that's you, "Boondock Saints") and when someone gets it right. In the case of Irish writer-director Martin McDonagh's ridiculously entertaining "Seven Psychopaths," the latter involves tweaking the expected tropes with his stage-hewn creative style, then commenting on those clichés even as the film winks at the fact that it's embracing them wholeheartedly.
"Seven Psychopaths" is actually McDonagh's second such movie to bring QT to mind; the first, his Oscar-nominated 2008 filmmaking debut "In Bruges," hid out in Belgium with a couple of introspective hit men whose thoughts actually felt a bit more deep what you typically encounter in these gabby gangster pictures. McDonagh continues his ruminative streak with "Seven Psychopaths," which reteams him with "In Bruges" star Colin Farrell as, well, an Irish screenwriter named Marty who is in Los Angeles working on a script called "Seven Psychopaths." He has the title, anyway, when his manic actor friend Billy (Sam Rockwell) offers to help him, even though it might divert Billy's attention from the lucrative dognapping business he operates with his cravat-rocking pal Hans (national treasure Christopher Walken).
The plot comes together when it's revealed that the latest victim of Hans and Billy's moneymaking scheme is Charlie (Woody Harrelson), a cruel crime boss desperate for the return of his adorable Shih Tzu. "Seven Psychopaths" — give or take, by my count — unfolds as Billy, Hans, and now Marty attempt to stay a step ahead of Charlie and his thugs (including dependable ringers like Kevin Corrigan and Zeljko Ivanek), while Billy regales his reluctant writing partner with tales of murderous nutjobs that might be good for their script. Oh, and did I mention that there's also a masked serial killer known as the Jack of Diamonds terrorizing the LA underworld? That's Michael Stuhlbarg and the vastly improved Michael Pitt from "Boardwalk Empire" in an early, tone-setting cameo.
McDonagh even brings Billy's stories to visual life for us with a secondary cast that showcases Harry Dean Stanton as a silent, vengeful Quaker, and he more than rises to the challenge of keeping the script's myriad threads from getting tangled. Certainly more so than its kindred spirit "Hot Fuzz," "Seven Psychopaths" is meta-aware of the beats it's expected to hit — the desert interlude, the shootout — with the bloody, clever script going so far as to acknowledge that it will soon be doing so. Which is great, except when it comes to the genre's notoriously appalling treatment of the fairer sex. "Your women characters are awful," Hans tells Marty, an observation echoed by this film's blatant mishandling of Abbie Cornish, Gabourey Sidibe, and Olga Kurylenko. Yes, it's a thing. But does it really have to be?
And this just in: Farrell (now with foxily graying temples) makes an excellent straight man. He generously cedes his scenes to whatever master character actor shares the shot with him, reacting to the mayhem with those impossibly expressive eyebrows and very often a glug of alcohol. (Billy: "This is my writer friend." Hans: "Yes, I can smell the booze.") Rockwell breaks no new ground; he's pretty much cornered the market on motor-mouthed losers with a heart of gold. But no one's doing it better, and Billy's devotion — to his friends, to his art — gives him necessary layers, despite the fact that he's arguably the film's biggest psychopath. Even more than Tom Waits, here playing a serial-killer killer clutching a fluffy white bunny.
Sure, it all might sound preciously contrived, and in the hands of lesser artisans "Seven Psychopaths" would probably be quite trying. But the results are wickedly funny and wildly violent, with moments of true and beautiful pathos. And hopefully someone involved with this film will see fit to pony up for Christopher Walken's Oscar campaign. It's his best performance in ages, taking all those famously Walkeny quirks and harnessing them into a turn that incorporates guileless charm and subtle menace with gut-busting line deliveries. Offered a drink, Hans politely declines. "I take peyote," he says. Because you just can't have a desert scene without it.