Every now and then you come across a movie that breaks all expectations, that delivers in laughs and drama, being borderline sublime in its poignancy whilst also irreverent in its dark humour. Whatever you know about The Guard – whether you’ve heard it was an unlikely partner buddy-buddy movie, a comedy in the vein of Hot Fuzz, or just another quirky Brit (or in this case Irish) indie flick – prepare to be surprised. It’s a superb little movie, a very different animal from anything you might expect, and a perfect lead vehicle for the underrated but consistently great Brendan Gleeson. The fact that it also has the ever-reliable Don Cheadle in a solid supporting role is merely the cherry on the cake.
The story follows Sgt. Boyle, who is an unorthodox and fairly apathetic policeman in the Connemara district of West Ireland. There isn’t a great deal of serious crime going on there, and he’s been on the job for so long that he’s almost immune to anything that does go on. We are introduced to him by way of a teenage RTA fatality which occurs while he’s out on speed patrol. He nonchalantly checks for a pulse and then immediately searches the body for money and drugs, promptly popping one of the happy pills that he finds. He’s not bothered; anything to break up just another mundane day on the job.
But when a dead body pops up with suggestive evidence that would denote the act of a cult serial killer, Boyle alerts the FBI, who promptly take over the case and smother the area with their men. It soon becomes apparent that there’s more to the case than meets the eye – and that somebody may just be masking the side-effects of their more nefarious grander operations under the guise of being a serial killer to throw the FBI off their trail. Boyle knows this, but nobody is really interested in his opinion, and he’s not particularly bothered himself. However, when the criminals behind it all start targeting him, using blackmail, coercion and threats to his life to get him to steer clear of the case, he suddenly realises that he is far more involved than he ever wanted to be, and that he may just have to take a stand on this one, albeit a very reluctant one.
Don’t be misled by the quotes all over some of the posters, this isn’t a “raucous comedy”, per se, even though it does have many great, hilarious (and laugh-out-loud) moments; whilst the declaration that it is “Hot Fuzz plus In Bruges” is heading in the right direction, it is misleading people over the buddy-buddy movie slant – this is not really a buddy-buddy movie. Similarly you shouldn’t feel that the film is limited by its label as the most successful Irish film of all time in terms of Irish Box Office receipts – it’s more than just a popular film in Ireland: it’s a very good film which will, hopefully, eventually break through to a much wider audience.
The Guard is the debut directorial effort from John Michael McDonagh (who also wrote it); he’s the brother of Martin McDonagh, the writer/director who relatively recently made his own theatrical debut with In Bruges. This is of particular relevance when you consider the humour of the two pieces – it would seem that the brothers are quite alike when it comes to their dark dramedy approach to their debuts. Indeed, the above “Hot Fuzz plus In Bruges” quote got it part right, it’s just the Hot Fuzz element that’s misleading – this is a very In Bruges kind of film.
You see, whilst there are a couple of buddy-buddy elements in this film, it would be unfair to class it as anything other than a fantastic lead vehicle for Brendan Gleeson, a superb Irish supporting actor who has been great in everything from Braveheart to Gangs of New York but who has seldom been given this much room to breathe. Which is a shame, in retrospect, because he’s so damn good.
Gleeson is an undeniable breath of fresh air in this movie; his iconoclastic anti-hero manages to break just about every preconception you could imagine. Try and label him – as Don Cheadle’s FBI agent repeatedly does – and you’ll end up wrong, or at least severely doubting yourself. His words and behaviour suggests that he is a racist, bigoted, foul-mouthed, lawless, amoral, and corrupt, yet behind the obvious there’s a sneaky suspicion that he may just be the most intelligent of the lot of them, and the sceenes with his dying mother even showcase a more touching side to him. Strategic, insightful, extremely well-read and well-spoken, and sharply witty – his overtly pig-ignorant behaviour masking a finely-tuned machine working within; a highly educated man of wit and intelligence and not without sensitivity and whose bluntly honest remarks are, without a doubt, quite disarming in this day and age.
Which doesn’t mean he isn’t self-centred and de-sensitised to much of what goes on in his district. He’s seen it all before, and he moves at his own speed and in his own way, normally choosing the path of zero resistance and avoiding both conflict and just plain hard work. Cynicism and pragmatism are the two sides to his coin; years of experience probably making him favour the former.
And who can blame Don Cheadle’s FBI Agent for not being able to read him? After all, as an audience, it takes us a fair while to get beneath the ostensibly bigoted and corrupt exterior. Yet Cheadle is a definite backseat driver in this feature, chipping in for a fraction of the runtime in a role which only results in a couple of great conversations between the two law officers and one further standout scene together. But who can complain, Cheadle’s input would be welcome in most movies, and he’s made his mark in everything from his breakthrough role in the underrated Denzel Washington film noir Devil In A Blue Dress to his tour de force lead in Hotel Rwanda, with excellent contributions to everything from Out of Sight to Traffic to Crash in between. He’s a great foil for Brendan Gleeson’s politically incorrect but smarter-than-you-think Irish cop, and has a couple of laugh-out-loud moments, particularly with the pimp-magician velvet suit he sports in one scene, but he simply doesn’t have the screentime to quite qualify as a joint co-star, instead just popping up a few times to further make it clear to the viewer just how wrong our preconceptions are about Gleeson’s ignorance.
There’s solid, villainous support from a trio of familiar faces: Liam Cunningham (Harry Brown, Safe House), Mark Strong (Kick Ass, Tinker Tailor) and David Wilmot (King Arthur) who may not quite have enough character development to make them into fully-realised entities, but are still given some against-type unpredictability in the same vein as Gleeson’s character with their brief intellectual conversations about philosophy and the like. There’s a knowing respect that they have for Gleeson’s unorthodox cop – woefully disrespectful, corrupt on his own terms, but still unable to be bought off like the rest of his colleagues – and it gives the bunch of them an extra dynamic that you wouldn’t normally find in standard cop-who-doesn’t-play-by-the-rules-versus-eccentric-villains fare.
It's an outstanding directorial debut, arguably better than In Bruges, shot in a stylish, unpredictable fashion to match the content and boasting one of the most unusual soundtracks that I have ever come across, particularly for an ostensible cop comedy thriller: a playful, energetic guitar-dominated fare which often feels like it would be more suitable for a comedy western than a cop film, yet perfectly suits the quirky, offbeat material and the nature of the central character. McDonagh has crafted a sharp, biting, witty and compelling piece and, if this is anything to go by, has a promising career ahead of him in the industry.
At the end of the day there’s plenty to enjoy in this directorial debut, most of it radiating outwards from Gleeson’s central presence. There are elements of the humour and interaction from every buddy-buddy film from Lethal Weapon through to Hot Fuzz, but don’t be distracted by that element – it’s just one part of an elaborate puzzle. Indeed it’s the quirky humour, both dark and clever at the same time, drifting from Father Ted to In Bruges to Robert Altman in a heartbeat, which truly shines out in this piece, as exemplified by the main character, his unpredictable manner, behaviour and intellectual wit. The first few minutes of The Guard will likely completely throw you, breaking all of your expectations – with any luck, in a good way – and, hopefully, by the end of it, you’ll have watched a cop comedy-drama unlike any you’ve ever seen before. There’s only one way to find out.
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