22 August 2011


Those who've flagged up The Guard as a film from the makers of In Bruges are either innocently unaware or wilfully ignorant of the fact that it's actually written and directed by John Michael McDonagh. That's not to say the film is entirely dissimilar to his brother Martin's 2008 tragi-comic cult hit, seeing as how it retains star Brendan Gleeson and a distinctively Gaelic perspective. And it's also very good.

Gleeson is Gerry Boyle, a police sergeant from Galway whose methods are unorthodox at best, and amoral at worst. In the fashion of 1980s buddy cop movies, he's paired with Wendell Everett, a straight-flying and motivated FBI agent who's tracking an international drug smuggling ring. Everett has his methods, but he undoubtedly requires Boyle's experience in order to unearth the perpetrators he's searching for. And Boyle is either "really motherfucking smart, or really motherfucking dumb."

Wendell delivers that quote to Boyle, and one of the joys of The Guard is in the ambiguity around our hero. On one hand, we meet him as he observes a catastrophic car accident, and picks the pockets of dead teenagers for drugs. He's racist, craggy and generally confrontational. And on the other hand, he goes to Disneyland on his own, and has his picture taken with Goofy. He seems harmless enough, and he loves his elderly mum to bits. It's Boyle's movie, and, in turn, Brendan Gleeson's.

For Gleeson, this is an absolute gift of a role, and his performance is excellent, perhaps the best of his whole career. In the process of untangling the huge dump of criminal connections that has arrived on his patch, he trades on that sense of Obfuscating Stupidity to baffle all comers. While every other character involved has come from somewhere else, Boyle is in his element. At most, he seems mildly inconvenienced by the international criminals that have decided to hide out in Galway, but he remains a compelling anti-hero.

That makes Don Cheadle an excellent counterpoint, as Wendell. The pair have a completely unexpected chemistry, turning the buddy cop formula on its head by having the upstart of the two be much older and experienced than the more strait-laced cop. Wendell's incredulity is always entertaining, because it often mirrors the audience reaction. The villains, played by Liam Cunningham and Mark Strong, haven't travelled as far as Wendell, but they're also out of sorts when pitched against Boyle.

McDonagh's real success here is in giving the tropes of the tired buddy cop comedy, along with the bravado of infantile British crime dramas, a wake-up call by plunging them into Galway, and giving them a much-needed refresher course. It deploys both sets of tropes without ever being cliched, and has a healthy disdain for the usual writing of such films that borders on metatextual. Most other writers wouldn't have turned out a script like this, with the same story.

But as mentioned, much of the film rests upon Brendan Gleeson, and the suggestion above also applies to say that the film wouldn't work if it were set in small-town America and starred Bruce Willis. Gleeson brings huge personality to the role of Boyle, and I hope he continues to collaborate with the McDonaghs, who seem to know just exactly how to deploy him for the maximum amount of dry humour and convincing pathos. Accordingly, the audience has much more emotional investment in his relationship with Fionnula Flanagan, as his mother, than they ever could in the criminal element, which has been extensively played out by now.

The Guard is the story of a great character, and Gerry Boyle is just as different a character from Ken in In Bruges as John Michael's film is from Martin's. To me at least, the comparisons are superficial, related to the cast, the tone and the fact that it's a debut feature. But it goes without saying that if you enjoyed In Bruges, this is also your kind of film. But on its own, it's generally a much warmer film, as baffling as its protagonist with its confrontational approach and hidden depths. It's a joy to behold, with its memorable characters, witty dialogue and a bold and brilliant performance by Brendan Gleeson.

The Guard is now showing in select cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen The Guard, why not share your comments below?

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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