REVIEW: The Guard [2011]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: R | Runtime: 96 minutes | Release Date: July 7th, 2011 (Ireland)
Studio: Element Pictures / Sony Pictures Classics
Director(s): John Michael McDonagh
Writer(s): John Michael McDonagh

“I’m Irish, sir. Racism is part o’ me culture.”

All Sergeant Gerry Boyle wanted was to be left alone. A guard in Connemara, Ireland, he got through his workday by having a pint, rough-housing with the youngins, and stationing himself at the sharpest curve in the road to pickpocket illicit drugs from the kids lying dead from car crashes. Days off mean escapades with his two favorite prostitutes, crime scenes are for enjoyment rather than documentation for actual police work, and his constant bucking of authority is status quo. Gerry Boyle is abrasive, out-of-control, and off his rocker, but despite all that—or perhaps because of it—he is also the best law enforcement agent his precinct has.

Only one man could pull a role like this off and considering the writer/director of The Guard is John Michael McDonagh, there was no question he’d do it. Yes, Brendan Gleeson—muse to McDonagh’s brother Martin and an all-around fantastic actor—is the star. His formidable presence, gruff exterior, and ability to become what looks to be the cuddliest teddy bear there ever was are all crucial to pulling off this character. We must be able to shake our head in astonishment at what he does, but also acknowledge he’s doing it for a reason. Connemara is not populated by the smartest of folk and nothing crazy really happens, so Boyle is allowed to leave his considerable smarts at home in order to go through the motions and keep his days entertainingly in the law’s gray area.

By no means a role model for the kids who do his bidding, Boyle still commands respect with sarcastic empathy and no-nonsense mettle while turning the other way from their transgressions as he takes a little something for himself. Who’s it going to hurt? Most of the stuff is from dead bodies; whether he could have prevented those deaths by ‘doing his job’ or not, some may say he cleans the streets by letting them die. And if someone did try and turn the screws, he’d completely ignore them, roll his eyes condescendingly, or go after them like a pitbull until they start apologizing as if the wrong in question was theirs. Just ask Garda Aidan McBride (Rory Keenan) how his first day went. After a thrown coffee, stunned silence in response to most of his actions, and unwillingly assisting in the tainting of a murder scene, his disappearance was probably the best thing that could of happened to him.

But such a vanishing act is all part of the plot—giving too many details like Romanian wives or IRA weaponry ruins the fun —meticulously unraveling behind our unorthodox sergeant. As it turns out, a quartet of drug smugglers have decided to use Connemara as their drop point for a half billion-dollar cocaine shipment. America has sent an FBI agent named Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle) to oversee the investigation and local law enforcement is ready to help. Except my sentiments above about Boyle being the best they have are unfortunately true. The rest of the bunch are as stupid, tactless, and dishonorable as you can get. They appear dumbfounded at Everett’s debriefing, wonder if the slang ‘he’s been liquidated’ actually means the person was turned to liquid, and fly off the handle if someone dares allude to the fact they are from Dublin. Who knew citizens of west Ireland held Dubliners in lower esteem than lepers?

The fact Boyle happily watches them flail while sitting with a beer laughing doesn’t help the situation and discovering how heady the men they’re chasing are seems to render the whole situation lost. Led by Francis Sheehy (Liam Cunningham), his Irish (David Wilmot’s Liam O’Leary) and British (Mark Strong’s Clive Cornell) compatriots aren’t brute muscle kept around because they can’t think. Well, Wilmot is because he’s a sociopath not averse to killing … but he can come up with a good Nietzsche quote when pressured too. No, it’s Cunningham and Strong who head up the outfit and yearn for more. Always philosophical, they begin to question how much money would be enough or how long before the IQ levels of the people they interact with will disenchant them enough to quit. It leads to some of the wittiest banter of the film and makes the final showdown nice, giving them proper action the likes of which they’ve forgotten.

This razor sharp wit is what makes The Guard a ton of fun to watch. McDonagh has crafted a very smart script and his actors are up to the task delivering lines with the driest of straight faces. Gleeson is so good at feigning idiocy that he actually makes Cheadle look amateurish. I know it’s all part of the goof, making the American seem too by-the-book and humorless, but the overly sarcastic retorts before cussing the truths back at the Irishman come off too strong. Or maybe Gleeson is just that good or maybe Cheadle is, playing the FBI stereotype as directed. Either way, seeing the American’s face drop in disgust as his counterpart jokes about ‘Langley’ and whether or not all black people are drug dealers is priceless. Add in the back and forth between Cunningham and Strong with the latter getting chided for being too British and the laughs stay consistently steady.

I won’t say the end result is as good as In Bruges, (brother Martin’s last film with Gleeson), or the last great heavily-accented and almost in need of subtitles comedy I’ve seen, In the Loop, but it comes close. And while the villains are merely foils awaiting their demise, the plot’s impetus to show the partnership of Cheadle and Gleeson makes up for the lack of good vs. evil—until the explosive end. I like how Boyle is given three dimensions with the inclusion of his just-as-mental mother (Fionnula Flanagan); how Cheadle’s FBI agent slowly gets the sense of Irish humor thrown at him during his fish-out-of-water subplot; and that the villains aren’t afraid to go outside the box and show as much confidence as their pursuers. If only those smugglers knew enough to leave the under-achieving cop alone. Happy to sit back so long as no one close is affected, the sleeping giant is awoken once the crime creeps into his own house.

[1] Sergeant Gerry Boyle (center, Brendan Gleeson) stars in Sony Pictures Classics’ The Guard. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
[2] Don Cheadle as Agent Wendell Everett Photo by Jonathan Hession, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
[3] Left to Right: Brendan Gleeson as Sgt. Gerry Boyle and Mícheál Óg Lane as Eugene Moloney Photo by Jonathan Hession, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

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