They say bad artists borrow and great artists steal, but "Seven Psychopaths" proves that there's a middle ground: Sometimes, pretty good artists just copy.
Writer-director Martin McDonagh doesn't hide his influences in this merry, violent mess of a comedy, beginning with Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction." No, really -- the movie actually begins with two hit-men making wry observations about popular culture and foreign countries. It's a way for McDonagh to cop to what he's doing but keep doing it -- and keep doing it he will.
Colin Farrell, of McDonagh's "In Bruges," returns as a possible stand-in for the filmmaker: He plays a screenwriter named Marty who's having trouble finishing a movie titled "Seven Psychopaths." Breaking his concentration, but perhaps providing fodder, is his erratic friend Billy (Sam Rockwell), who kidnaps dogs for the reward money with his partner, Hans (Christopher Walken). When they kidnap a shih tzu belonging to the ruthless gangster Charlie (Woody Harrelson), Martin is reluctantly pulled into a maelstrom of violence.
Movies about moviemaking can often feel lazy -- like rock songs about touring, or poetry about sitting in cafes -- but McDonagh is such an energetic filmmaker and fancy-footed writer that he nearly pulls it off. And his actors are ridiculously good: Farrell mostly plays it straight, but Rockwell is wonderfully bonkers, Harrelson's timing is terrific and Walken is, well, Walken. You might not even care that the movie is just a string of random vignettes with stunt-casting (Tom Waits as a serial killer, Harry Dean Stanton as a Quaker).
PLOT An action-comedy about a struggling screenwriter, a kidnapped dog and a crazed gangster. RATING R (violence language, sexual situations, nudity)
PLAYING AT Area theaters
BOTTOM LINE This merry, messy comedy pays slavish tribute to Quentin Tarantino, who probably would have done a better job.