The Guard

Dir: John Michael McDonagh

Rating: 3.7/5.0

Sony Pictures Classics

96 Minutes

When the credits rolled on the subversive, incredibly funny The Guard and I saw the director’s name, I thought, “Oh! The In Bruges guy. That explains a lot.” Hanging out in the front of the theatre with some critics, I found out that the director was actually the brother of the In Bruges guy. That kind of explains why the movie is the way it is (at least, why Brendan Gleeson is in it), but who would have thought that John Michael McDonagh’s feature length debut would be so reminiscent of his brother’s?

You see, Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges is a hilarious crime comedy that washed out the taste of all the post-Tarantino style-biters that hadn’t gotten the point since 1994. The Guard doesn’t have the overwhelmingly paradoxical European art house sheen that In Bruges has, but the comedy is still there: hedonism, violence and decidedly un-PC remarks. Less midgets this time, though.

Gleeson stars as Sgt. Gerry Boyle, a “colorful” policemen in rural Ireland who speaks his mind even when he shouldn’t (especially when he shouldn’t), has classy prostitutes come in from out of town for his own personal recreation and takes drugs out of the pockets of dead kids in car crashes – partially to protect their livelihood, partially because he’d like a hit. In other words, it’s the endlessly re-watchable ’70s asshole cop role, transplanted to modern-day Ireland. It’s a great role for perpetual supporting actor Gleeson, who brings an aged weariness that simmers just below the middle-finger surface of the character. To crib from The French Connection, Boyle is bad news, but a good cop.

If there weren’t a plot, The Guard would surely have to descend into self-flagellating Bad Lieutenant territory, but thankfully writer/director McDonagh takes a cue from all the best ’70s crime films and makes the vices entertaining window-dressing. The actual plot concerns drug smugglers bringing their wares into the country through one of the local ports, which not only brings the FBI into town, but also causes the death of Boyle’s partner.

The countryside might be the only place someone like Boyle could succeed – one could see a big city police force whipping him into shape or just straight-up firing him – but in The Guard he brings an hilariously off-color attitude to the Irish countryside, which is beautifully rendered by McDonagh and cinematographer Larry Smith. It’s a bit like In Bruges in that sense, too, fostering unexpected crassness in an aesthetically stunning location.

Don Cheadle plays the straight-laced FBI Agent leading the investigation into the smugglers, fulfilling the “Hey, you can’t do that!” role similar to his turn as the no-nonsense military man in Iron Man 2. In other words, he’s Gleeson’s Roger Murtaugh, but slightly different — he’s an expert-agent-with-book-smarts-not-street-smarts who needs loose cannon Boyle’s local knowledge to even navigate a countryside where nobody wants to talk to a foreign black man in a golf cap. In a clever twist, Boyle is the guy who’s getting too old for this shit.

The plot, with its slow build mystery and mild “conspiracy going all the way to the top” elements, is secondary to the film’s character work. While “drug smugglers using rural areas to get their shipments” is pretty interesting on its own, it’s Gleeson’s loose cannon colliding with Cheadle’s stubborn fish-out-of-water cluelessness that make the film. And it’s not like the one-liners that sugar the pill of an action movie – even if there was no plot one could still enjoy the antics of the surprisingly well-read drug smugglers (one of whom is of course played by Mark Strong).

The Guard is a welcome surprise of a film, one whose setting tricks the viewer into thinking it much more quaint than it actually is. In reality, it’s an incredibly funny procedural colliding with a subversion of the “fish out of water” story – one told from the perspective of the ground the fish is flopping on.

by Danny Djeljosevic

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