The Guard can probably be described as “Lethal Weapon” meets Quentin Tarantino by way of “In Bruges.” However, it does not feel like a derivative motion picture or a slapdash mash-up. Instead, this is a hilarious, well-written and satisfyingly tongue-in-cheek dark comedy which possesses its own unique identity. Written and directed by John Michael McDonagh (his feature film debut), The Guard also reminds us just how good a buddy cop movie can be when the genre is handled correctly. With its doggedly offbeat and original sensibility, it is often laugh-out-loud funny, and it affords more pleasures through clever writing and strong performances than all of those obnoxious, noisy summer blockbusters which earned more box office attention.
Set in rural Ireland, the story concerns policeman Sergeant Gerry Boyle (Gleeson), who has little regard for the rules and regulations of his career. He is a man who drinks heavily, spends his days off with prostitutes, indulges in various drugs, and is generally insensitive. As Boyle investigates a local murder, FBI Agent Wendell Everett (Cheadle) is sent to the area upon hearing word that a major drug deal is going down. Unable to speak Gaelic (the local dialect) and encountering disinterested locals, Everett is compelled to form an uneasy alliance with Boyle to solve the case.
The Guard truly hits the ground running; its first half is chock full of hilarious jokes and witty character interaction. All of the vignettes spotlighting Boyle are pure gold. The movie also operates as a witty pastiche of Hollywood movies — Mark Strong’s character particularly enjoys undermining clichéd dialogue whenever it’s used, and the final scene contains a hysterical discussion about the possibility of a movie adaptation of the story. However, the film’s second half is not quite as successful as the first from a script standpoint. The sharp one-liners are in shorter supply (though there are still a handful of zingers) and the picture becomes more concerned with its rather dreary plot. McDonagh has trouble as his movie approaches its finishing line, too; it seems that he hunted for the easiest solution, thus opting for a final act culminating in a shootout that doesn’t quite gel. Such a Hollywood touch feels out-of-place in this otherwise devilishly clever, unconventional indie.
Compared to more mainstream films, The Guard lacks glossy sheen, but that’s a positive — director John Michael McDonagh opted for a naturalistic, rather uncinematic visual scheme befitting of the dreary Irish setting. This is topped off with an often catchy, at times Western-esque score courtesy of Calexico. The film’s plot involves standard stuff like drug running and murder, but such elements are inconsequential at the end of the day. More than anything else, this is The Brendan Gleeson Show — the story-related proceedings exist solely to advance the development of the character of Gerry Boyle. And that’s fine, because the film works remarkably well as a character study of this sloppy policeman basted in sarcasm who is perpetually offending his peers. The best thing about Boyle is that he’s not a depthless caricature; he is wholly three-dimensional, as he comes of age during the story.
It helps that Gleeson is so excellent here. A veteran character actor, Gleeson has been a supporting player for years, and he’s predictably delightful in this lead role. Gleeson’s biggest success is that he keeps us guessing as to whether Boyle truly realizes he’s being so offensive or whether he’s actually just trolling his arse off to get a rise out of everyone (at one stage Everett tells him, “I can’t tell if you’re really motherfucking dumb or really motherfucking smart.”). Fortunately, the supporting cast is just as good. In the role of Everett, Don Cheadle is a terrific straight man, and his grounded disposition serves to further highlight how abnormal Boyle truly is. Even the bit players are great here, from the drug dealers (Mark Strong is notably funny) to the sweet-natured prostitutes hired by Boyle, and even the horse than Everett questions.
Throughout The Guard, you’re likely to be reminded of 2008’s exceptional “In Bruges.” And there’s a logical reason for that: “In Bruges” was written and directed by John Michael McDonagh’s brother Martin (who also executive produced this feature). While John’s story is not quite as excessively violent as his brother’s, the films are markedly similar in their dry, sardonic humor, frequently profane dialogue and atmospheric sense of place, not to mention their great use of Brendan Gleeson. “In Bruges” has greater depth and resonance, but if you loved that film then you’re sure to enjoy The Guard. And while not perfect, the picture is a hoot thanks to witty writing and a sensational performance by Gleeson. Indeed, he has created the most memorable character of 2011.