A comedy about a small-town Irish cop and a straight-arrow African-American FBI Agent, The Guard sounds like a cliché wrapped in a chestnut inside a couple of stereotypes. These movies write themselves, don’t they?
Fortunately, The Guard has a real author, John Michael McDonagh, a screenwriter ( Ned Kelly) and the older brother of playwright Martin McDonagh ( In Bruges). McDonagh, making his directorial debut, shares his sibling’s gift for profanity and black humour in startling combinations. The language is partly Irish, augmented with the screwball comedy tradition from Preston Sturges to Quentin Tarantino.
Plot is strictly secondary to talk here. The movie introduces its trio of drug-dealing villains early on – Liam Cunningham as the brains, David Wilmot as the psychopath shooter, and Mark Strong as the petulant English partner – as they drive at night, discussing philosopher Bertrand Russell and the contributions of Welsh culture. The torrent of gab from characters on both sides of the law fills the movie, with ruminations about everything from movies with numbers for their titles to Russian authors Gogol and Dostoevsky to the music of jazz trumpeter Chet Baker.
Although The Guard is primarily a language romp, it’s also a terrific showcase for veteran pug-faced character actor Brendan Gleeson ( Gangs of New York, In Bruges) as the titular hero, Gerry Boyle, an eccentric cop in the Connemara district of County Galway. Boyle doesn’t go by any known law book: The first time we see him, he drops a tab of acid which he has taken from the corpse of a crash victim.
Simultaneously cheerful and curmudgeonly, he lives alone, regularly visits his terminally ill ma (Fionnula Flanagan) in a nursing home. Occasionally enjoys a pint or 10, sausages himself into a wet suit to go deep-sea swimming and, on his day off, orders in role-playing hookers from Dublin for his recreation.
When a rare murder happens in his territory, Boyle is pushed out of his bizarre comfort zone. He and his new assistant from Dublin (Rory Keenan) find the victim was connected to international cocaine traffickers. Soon, a crisply professional FBI agent, Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle) arrives in town. During a briefing, Boyle offers a few racially offensive interruptions to get Wendell’s attention. The Ivy League-educated agent looks at him with more incredulity than indignation. “I’m Irish. Racism is part of my culture,” explains Boyle.
After the initial series of culture clashes, Wendell and Gerry discover, over many drinks, that they’re both outsiders, facing widespread institutional corruption. Cheadle is strictly the straight man here (as an actor, he’s a great listener), and works as the audience’s stand-in, trying to figure out the secret of Boyle’s character twists, his self-destructive behaviour and outsized self-regard. He keeps us guessing until the last frame of the film.
The Guard is guilty of being overly cute, but it brims with talent and a freshness that extends beyond the clever script. Not content with just panning his lens over the dreamy, melancholic Galway landscape, splashes of spaghetti western guitar and trumpet fill the soundtrack where pennywhistles and harps might be expected. McDonagh and cinematographer Larry Smith employ crayon-bright colours for his interiors that suggest Boyle’s brightly demented world view: An overgrown child, he lives out heroic fantasies in the isolation of his imagination.
- Written and directed by John Michael McDonagh
- Starring Brendan Gleeson and Don Cheadle
- Classification: 14A