Irish cop dishes up rough justice in entertaining, profanely funny ‘The Guard’
In Hollywood, the teaming up of mismatched lawmen—one orthodox, the other a wild man—might lead to a predictable odd-couple action comedy like Beverly Hills Cop, or the Lethal Weapon franchise. In John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard, the pairing of a sophisticated U.S. Federal agent and an irascible small-town Irish police sergeant leads to philosophical debates, existential angst, musings on Anglo-Irish prejudices, and other explorations into the Irish character. It’s also a comedy, profane, subversively funny, wholly unpredictable, and infinitely smarter and more textured than any dozen conventional action movies.
The great Brendan Gleeson gets to sink his chops into a delicious central role as Sgt. Gerry Boyle, precinct cop in a small rural village in County Galway, on the West Coast of Ireland.
Boyle knows every street tough and criminal in town, and their parents and families. Not particularly anal about the sacred rules of police work, he doesn’t mind disrupting a crime scene to get at the facts, or nicking the occasional tab of evidence for his own recreational use. Nor does he have any qualms about yanking the chains of co-workers and citizens alike, to test their mettle. His new, younger partner, McBride (Rory Keenan), newly transferred from Dublin, and razzed by Boyle as a “city boy,” is plainly horrified at Boyle’s cavalier methods.
After a grisly murder in town, suave U.S. FBI agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle) and his high-tech team descend on the village on the trail of an international drug-trafficking ring that’s preparing to offload a suspected half-billion dollars’ worth of cocaine. At the briefing for local law enforcement, Boyle plays class clown, needling Everett with pointed, racially-charged questions to suss out what kind of man he’s dealing with. (“I’m Irish,” shrugs Boyle, “racism is part of my culture.”) As the two men ride around in the squad car, share a couple of pints of Guinness, and grudgingly team up for some investigating, Everett finally declares, “I can’t tell if you’re [bleeping] stupid or [bleeping] smart.” The wily Boyle takes it as a compliment.
Gleeson’s robust performance is the glue that holds the entire enterprise together. His Boyle suffers fools not at all, and adheres to his own strict code of right and wrong that has little to do with conventional morality: he amuses himself with call-girls when off-duty (who adore him in return), makes a crucial ally of a cagey little boy, and knows when to turn off the buffoonery, handling a young woman whose husband is missing with courtly sensitivity. (He’s also riotously funny throughout, baiting friend and foe alike with a gleam in his eye.) Yet his most effective moments may be those he shares with the marvelous Fionulla Flanagan as Boyle’s dying mother, living out the last few weeks of her life at a nursing facility. She has a wry wit to match his, and in their few fleeting scenes together, these two fine actors convey a lifetime bond tempered by life’s absurdities and inevitable disappointments, the sadness of letting go and saying goodbye implicit in everything left unsaid.
The rest of the supporting cast is just as effective, beginning with the savvy, self-possessed Cheadle. A trio of terrific character actors play the principal drug smugglers: businesslike Liam Cunningham lectures sociopath David Wilmot on Nietzsche and Bertrand Russell, while put-upon Brit Mark Strong (in a wonderfully sly, deadpan performance) decries the quality of people he meets in his chosen profession and grapples with existential questions.
Film buffs should note that filmmaker McDonagh’s brother, playwright and filmmaker Martin McDonagh, directed another movie I love about Irish rough justice, In Bruges. (In that one, Gleeson got to occupy the far side of the law, playing a culturally refined Irish hit man on the lam in the Old World Belgian city.) The Guard doesn’t have quite the same relentless, morality-play ferocity as In Bruges; it’s more of a fine-tuned character study. But Gleeson’s character is irresistible, and so is the film in its entertainingly cheeky, no-nonsense look at the wages of crime.
★★★1/2 (out of four) Watch film trailer >>>
With Brendan Gleeson and Don Cheadle. Written and directed by John Michael McDonagh. A Sony Pictures Classics release. (R) 96 minutes.