The Guard (2011) / Comedy-Thriller
MPAA - R for pervasive language, violence, drug material and sexual content
Running time: 96 min.
Cast: Brendan Gleeson, Don Cheadle, Liam Cunningham, David Wilmot, Rory Keenan, Mark Strong, Fionnula Flanagan, Katarina Cas
Director: John Michael McDonagh
Screenplay: John Michael McDonagh
Review published September 4, 2011
Brendan Gleeson (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Beowulf) stars as middle-aged small-town Irish police officer Gerry Boyle, who joins forces with Wendell Everett (Cheadle, Iron Man 2) a straight-laced African-American FBI agent who doesn't appreciate Gerry's not-so-subtle racism, in order to bring to justice a quartet of murderous drug traffickers who may be trying to push a half-billion dollars worth of cocaine through the local port. The seemingly corrupt Sgt. Boyle has a taste for his own pleasures, from drugs to booze to hookers, though his conscience, especially in regard to his ailing mother (Flanagan, The Invention of Lying), leads him to muck up crime scenes in order to change the narrative in favor of the victim, should it prove embarrassing. He's either the dumbest cop on the beat, or merely playing dumb, a fact that does not go by unnoticed by his reluctant partner, Wendell.
The Guard's main asset is its star, Brendan Gleeson, a veteran character actor who had often made films better from his supportive presence, who is imminently watchable in a rare lead role. Though there is a plot to the film that involves a standard cops-and-drug smugglers storyline (see Beverly Hills Cop for a similar handling), much of the film is really about Gerry Boyle and his 'coming-of-age' as a cop and son in terms of meeting his responsibilities. In some ways, it is thematically similar to the Western, True Grit, with Boyle playing the John Wayne role, though in terms of its tone and ability to draw out laughs through the colloquial characterizations of its setting, one is also reminded of the film made by the duo who coincidentally recently remade True Grit, the Coen Brothers, with Fargo.
Written and directed by John Michael McDonagh (screenwriter for Ned Kelly), the tone of this offbeat dark comedy and its uncouth main character is set up from scene one and kept throughout. McDonagh knows Gleeson's ability to nail characterizations, having witnessed his work first-hand while Gleeson performed in McDonagh's brother Martin's dark and funny film, In Bruges. Cheadle plays the straight-man in this comedy, and lends his role not only the right beats to set up Gleeson for laughs, but also gives the film a more grounded sensibility to contrast how out of the realm of normalcy Boyle really is. However, there are just enough good qualities to ultimately see him as more than a one-dimensional nincompoop, and during the film's High Noon-ish climax, which re-evokes the spaghetti Western-scored feel the film starts with, we do come to care about his plight in a very palpable way.
The Irish brogue may be too strong for those who don't possess an ear for it, and this may affect your ability to get some of the jokes that are being set up and a portion of the plot and characterizations. Personally speaking, I didn't understand about 20% of the dialogue (you get to the point where you come to appreciate the seemingly endless F-bombs, as they are usually the lines most easily understood), so I do look forward to the video release in order to comprehend some of the moments and subtle jokes I could not the first time around. Even if understood, some of the film's jokes are knocks that may go over the heads of some viewers unaware of Ireland, particularly to the digs against Dublin (Gleeson's birthplace) and commentary on stereotypically Irish personalities.
The Guard's rewards come mostly through Gleeson's gleefully vulgar and brash performance, and mileage will certainly vary as to how much a central actor's performance will make a movie worthwhile when the story and plot are routine and not always well defined when not comparing it to Western-themed staples. But when Gleeson is on the screen, which is most of the time, the film is entirely watchable and quite entertaining, though it often has slapped-together feel. But the laughs are there, and some very good performances -- more than enough to keep The Guard's head well above the water.
©2011 Vince Leo