The first thing is, like so many movies before it, Seven Psychopaths is not the movie you've been led to believe it is by the marketing campaign. Which goes out of its way to identify seven characters played by seven more-or-less name actors, and imply that they are the title characters. This is not the case to such a tremendous degree that I'm not sure why anybody thought they could get away with it, especially since one of the seven characters thus promoted is in the movie for, tops, 90 seconds.

The second, and far more important thing, is that Seven Psychopaths plays a certain game with itself and its audience, and plays it very nearly as well as I have ever seen it played; but it is still a game that's awfully dubious on the merits. Namely, the pop-postmodern trick that probably precedes Scream but whose popularity owes to that film, of filmmakers committing all sorts of dramatic sins, from the niggling annoyance to the severe, even crippling flaw, and then thinking they can get away with those sins by pointing out what they've done and giggling and saying, "Isn't everything we're doing so completely stupid? and Doesn't the irony of us knowing what a hackneyed, problematic film we're making completely excuse use from all of those exact same problems?" To which the answers are yes, and no.

Seven Psychopaths, the second feature written and directed by ace playwright Martin McDonagh, after 2008's playfully snotty In Bruges, is a film about witty, pop-culture addicted gangsters of the sort that you saw absolutely everywhere back in the '90s, after Pulp Fiction, a subgenre that hasn't been fresh, insightful, or really even tolerable since about five minutes after Tarantino invented it; it indulges in improbably stupid violence; it has no idea whatsoever what to do with women. The film calls itself out on every one of these, and in fairly unforgiving terms - but even if McDonagh inserts characters saying, harshly, "Boy, this casual violence is sure unpleasant" and "You do get that women are people, right?", that doesn't really change the fact that Seven Psychopaths remains casually violent and disposes of its female characters as fast as it knows how, and while it sort of redeems itself on the violence issue by including a fantasy scene of such asinine, cheap-looking gore that it's hard not to giggle, he does not ever figure out a way to actually roll back on the paper-thin females inhabiting his movie.

On the other hand, at least McDonagh holds his own feet to the fire, and he does so in the form of a movie that is one of the most aggressively self-reflexive and self-lacerating in modern memory; a movie about an alcoholic Irish writer named Martin, played by In Bruges star Colin Farrell, who is having a huge problem starting his screenplay for a project called Seven Psychopaths - right now, he has just the title and one psychopath - and who is given a lucky break of sorts when his best friend in the world, actor and professional dog kidnapper Billy Bickle (Sam Rockwell) steals the beloved Shih Tzu of an actual, for-real mob boss, Charlie (Woody Harrelson). For this his wrath down upon everybody in range: Billy, Martin, and Billy's accomplice Hans Kieslowski (Christopher Walken), a lucky break only insofar as Martin's life has suddenly turned into the exact movie that he has, thus far, been unable to write.

Which is so much like Adaptation. that it's almost not fair, though to be fair to Seven Psychopaths, it wants to do vastly different things with this scenario than that Charlie Kaufman/Spike Jonze project. If anything, McDonagh's script is a like a feature-length version of the "Donald Kaufman" third of Adaptation., preferring to satirise commercial filmmaking by diving headlong into its worst excesses and exploding them from the inside. This is, like I said, a dangerous game to play, and while McDonagh comes awfully close to nailing it, he comes up short in too many important ways - casting relatively important names like Abbie Cornish, Gabourey Sidibe, and Olga Kurylenko in virtually non-existent roles and calling "satire!" works better on paper than in reality - and even at its best, Seven Psychopaths doesn't acquit itself nearly as well as the 2005 "junk food action movie ironically commenting on the emptiness of junk food movies" movie Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

All these intellectual reservations being permitted, the film is, admittedly, fun much more often than not; and as much as McDonagh wants to set up a movie that's a probing act of self-criticism, he's more interested in delivering a twisty yarn punched up with colorful characters and non-stop diversions into random dead-ends than his theater work would permit (in which connection, I think it's worth suggesting that the film would probably have been improved with a different director); on at least two occasions, the movie stops dead to indulge in what amount to style-driven short films (one is that asinine fantasy scene, the other is a thriller about a murderous Quaker played by an unspeaking Harry Dean Stanton - this latter being maybe the most entertaining part of the entire picture). Much of the movie, in fact, consists of nothing but listening to terrific actors making good use out of verbally dense, philosophically-overladen exchanges given to them by a man who, at his stone cold worst, has still always had an ear for making his dialogue dance. Seven Psychopaths is, on the whole, not nearly as saturated with blissfully quotable quotes as In Bruges, nor does any combination of actors reach the stagey playfulness of the relationship between Farrell and Brendan Gleeson in that film. But still, this is what McDonagh does best, even if this is hardly the best of his best.

As far as the actors delivering that dialogue, Farrell certainly does well by his role, as could be expected, and if Walken isn't quite as good as the awards buzz that is accruing to him, he's having an awful lot of fun. Rockwell is off doing something really damn peculiar, overplaying everything and ranting rather than speaking - it is the first time I've seen him in anything where I completely understood what makes people actively dislike him - and it's sort of motivated in the script, but not enough for it to cease being unpleasant to watch. Nobody else has a particularly large role, though in the legendary annals of Tom Waits in movies, I have rarely been so happy to see him as here, so take that for what it's worth.

All around, it's a fair movie; absolutely no better than fair, and it represents McDonagh going in precisely the direction from In Bruges that I, for one, least wanted him to go. It's hard for me to imagine this becoming even a cult classic, but it's a sizzling, reasonably smart night's entertainment that has a bit more going on upstairs than a lot of things. Not enough going on upstairs, but a bit.