Suffused with an irresistible strain of romantic Irish fatalism, writer-director John Michael McDonagh’s debut feature The Guard, plunders the cliches of a thousand interracial buddy-cop, fish-out-of water formula comedies, emerging with an ode to shabby nobility that’s much stranger and sadder than expected.
It’s also fookin’ hilarious—or at least that’s how Sergeant Gerry Boyle might describe it. Played by that venerable tree-trunk Brendan Gleeson in one of the great performances of his career, Gerry’s a magnificent, steely-eyed lout. First glimpsed getting miffed when a reckless drunken driving fatality interrupts his afternoon nap, Gerry quickly confiscates the dead lads’ narcotics for his own personal use. One of the top cops in a sleepy western Galway village, Gerry whiles away the hours in a state of perpetual boredom and slightly addled disappointment, punctuated by occasional visits from expensive Dublin prostitutes, or afternoons with his cancer-stricken Mum (Fionnulla Flanagan.)
All you really need to know about the Boyle family’s outlook arrives when Ma sneaks a toot of whiskey, scoffing at one of her fellow terminally ill patients: “There’s no need to make a big fuckin’ song and dance about it all.”
But suddenly big things are happening in the little town of Connemara. There’s a ship containing half a billion dollars’ worth of cocaine that’s expected to arrive soon, at least according to some American FBI fellows. Don Cheadle co-stars as Special Agent Wendell Everett, a ramrod-straight Southern dandy who finds himself way out of his element in the laissez-faire countryside.
Boyle has heard this all before, and he’s hardly impressed. Having spent too many stakeouts waiting around on docks for ships that never arrive, he amuses himself by laying on a thick bog-Irish ignorant routine and dropping casually racist taunts. It’s a tricky tightrope Gleeson is walking here, portraying a man of obvious intelligence who lives down to a stereotype for his own shits and giggles. There’s never a hint of malice in Boyle’s outrageous insults and his pokerfaced delivery suggests he’s dropping these verbal bombs as a tactic to size up his company. Watch the expectant look in Gleeson’s eyes whenever Boyle crosses the line. He’s waiting for somebody to rise to the occasion and take his bait.
Meanwhile, there are three dangerous drug smugglers (played by Liam Cunningham, David Wilmot and all-purpose baddie Mark Strong) getting cozy in Connemara. Working on creative ways to marginalize the rare law enforcement officers who cannot be purchased outright, this trio banters relentlessly about pop culture ephemera and quiz one another on quotes from their favorite philosophers. Strong, who plays the villain in a movie at least once a month these days, is in particularly fine form—bemoaning the low class of folks one must associate with in the criminal underworld. Much like our Sergeant Boyle, he seems to have grown awfully bored by corruption.
John Michael McDonagh’s brother Martin helmed the similarly, gleefully profane In Bruges , and these siblings obviously share an affinity for mellifluous strings of f-bombs delivered by Gleeson. The Guard is a bit slighter, lacking Bruges ’ lapsed Catholic grandeur—but both films take great pleasure in sidewinding conversational detours. Delightful grace notes abound, whether we’re watching Sergeant Boyle ridiculing whatever’s left of the IRA, or Strong’s verbal shellacking of two crooked cops who clearly watch too much TV.
Cheadle is one of the best re-actors we have in movies right now, and it’s a pleasure to watch the wheels turning in his mind when confronted with Gleeson’s abrasive, oddball behavior. The two don’t form the kind of friendship one might expect in a picture like this, so much as they grudgingly learn how to respect one another. This takes a good while, given Boyle’s propensity for pointing out that “since you’re in the FBI, I’d imagine you’re probably more accustomed to shooting unarmed women and children.”
Photographed with an incongruously bright color palate by Larry Smith, The Guard sadly doesn’t look as good as it sounds. McDonagh’s visual skills are rudimentary at best, and there’s a slightly sludgy picture quality that clashes with the unexpectedly bright bursts of orange and purple. Curious choice.
But Sergeant Boyle towers over even the clunky staging of the conclusion. Like a plus-sized version of every great Humphrey Bogart and Clint Eastwood character, there’s a strict moral code lurking somewhere beneath all that anti-social dissolution. Gleeson smartly plays it all as close to the vest as humanly possible; The Guard ’s main pleasure is his restless unpredictability. Still, when push comes to shove, even a boozy whoremonger like Boyle can become a hero.
He’s just not gonna make a big fuckin’ song and dance about it all.
Director: John Michael McDonagh
Starring: Brendan Gleeson, Don Cheadle and Mark Strong