Novice screenwriter Marty (Colin Farrell) has come down with a bad case of writer’s block and is struggling to find inspiration for his new script 'Seven Psychopaths'. All he needs is a little focus and inspiration. Billy (Sam Rockwell) is Marty’s best friend, an unemployed actor and part-time dog thief, who wants to help Marty, by any means necessary. Hans (Christopher Walken) is Billy’s partner in crime. Charlie (Woody Harrelson) is the psychopathic gangster whose beloved dog, Billy and Hans have just stolen. Charlie is unpredictable, extremely violent and wouldn’t think twice about killing anyone and anything associated with the theft. Marty is going to get all the focus and inspiration he needs, just as long as he lives to tell the tale.

A funny yet self-conscious crime caper.

As my fellow critics and I left the screening of Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths, we all riffed on what the violent comedy most reminded us of. 'It’s Adaptation directed by Oliver Stone"; 'Like Tarantino but with words by Mamet"; 'Barton Fink with bullets". A marathon of meta musings, McDonagh and his henchmen were clearly having a ball telling a story about storytelling.

some sequences are too knowingly self-aware

What we weren’t discussing was whether or not the new film from the writer-director of the much-better In Bruges offered anything of substance. The bloody tale of a blocked scriptwriter and a bunch of gangsters is fun to watch (mostly), yet the bold twists and turns of its playful narrative seem to serve no greater purpose other than its own cleverness.

Colin Farrell is Marty, a bit player in the Hollywood machine who has a great title for his next project but no idea how to start writing it. Sinking deeper into alcoholism, Marty has outstayed his welcome with his patient girlfriend, Kaya. She is played by Abbie Cornish, who works hard to make the character real; McDonagh’s film treats women badly, both on the page and on the screen (Olga Kurylenko’s Angela, for example, only sleeps with violent gangsters and suffers a horrible fate).

Marty’s best friend is Billy (Sam Rockwell), a talentless actor who sidelines as a dognapper in cahoots with career-crim Hans (Christopher Walken). When they steal Bonny, the beloved Shih Tzu of volatile bad-guy Charlie (Woody Harrelson), a vengeful wave of violence descends upon Marty, Billy and Hans. The story of the 'Seven Psychopaths’ that Marty has been struggling with is now very clear to the writer as he is right in the middle of it.

The cast, which also includes such heavy-hitting character actors as Tom Waits, Harry Dean Stanton, Gabourey Sidibe and Zeljko Ivanek, wrap their seasoned talents around McDonagh’s smart, sassy dialogue with obvious relish. But some sequences are too knowingly self-aware ('Get your hands up", 'No", 'But I have a gun", 'So?") and lose the coolness that’s the film’s biggest asset. Seven Psychopaths is at its best when it ponders the pitfalls of the creative process, usually in the quieter moments between Farrell (his best work in years) and Rockwell (offering a darker variation on his 'lovable loser’ persona). Ultimately, though, little of it offers anything new on the struggles of a blocked writer.

McDonagh’s film feels very much like an exercise in style and structure, not story. Characters are vividly brought to life by a fine cast and the words they spout are fast and funny, but they exist all too plainly as archetypes that serve the film’s conceit; none grow or learn or progress. In Bruges was just as convoluted and deliberately structured but worked because the leads had warmth and charm. It is, of course, fitting that the seven psychopaths are a heartless bunch, but overall it dilutes empathy and involvement in their plight.