Sergeant Gerry Boyle (Brendan Gleeson) of Galway is crass and abrasive and interprets the law a bit freely, all to glorious comic effect. Paired with strait-laced American FBI agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle), Boyle seeks to solve a couple of murders and disrupt a massive drug shipment in what could have been a trashy fish-out-of-water buddy comedy–but, through a combination of sharp and witty writing, ruthlessly speedy editing, and understated but spot-on performances, The Guard is a marvel of character-based storytelling. Gleeson (28 Days Later, In Bruges) and Cheadle are peerless actors, the kind who rarely star in blockbusters but who bring dynamic life to any scene they’re in. The supporting cast is chock-full of off-kilter talent, turning even the most incidental role into a memorable character. Writer-director John Michael McDonagh makes a remarkably accomplished feature debut; The Guard moves forward with gripping efficiency, yet every moment seems casual and often beside t
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John Michael McDonagh’s “The Guard” proves that both talent and attitude run in the McDonagh family. Like the work of his more famous brother, Martin McDonagh, John Michael’s debut film combines familiar crime-story themes with a malicious, anarchic wit that is Irish through and through. If Quentin Tarantino ever collaborated with Roddy Doyle, the resulting movie would be a lot like the work of the McDonagh brothers.
“Thr Guard” tells the story of Sgt. Gerry Boyle of the Galway Police (Brendan Gleeson), a cop who plays by no known rules. He steals and ingests drugs from dead perps, patronizes hookers who oblige him by dressing up as policewomen, and regularly sasses his superiors. “I’m Irish–racism is part of my culture,” he says when ordered to apologize for making insensitive remarks to Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle), a visiting African-American FBI agent.
Everett is in Ireland to chase down a group of murderous drug smugglers. When Boyle’s new partner goes missing, he and Everett must work together to solve the mystery and capture the smugglers. If you’re expecting a replay of “Lethal Weapon,” forget it. McDonagh is far too cynical and worldly-wise to go in for happy endings and buddy cliches. McDonagh reveals, very casually, that Boyle’s superiors are corrupt and trying to misdirect Everett. In an American film, the corrupt cops would all be hauled away in handcuffs at the end; in “The Guard,” it gives away nothing to reveal that nothing happens to them. Life goes on, the way it always has. But Boyle–cut from the same cloth as his superiors, but refusing to play by their rules–is uniquely able to get to the bottom of the mystery, precisely because he expects no good to come from any of it.
As Boyle, Gleeson gives one of the truly great comic performances of the last decade, on a par with the ones he gave for Martin McDonagh in “Six Shooter” and “In Bruges.” He and Cheadle have wonderful screen chemistry. I only wish that the character of Everett hadn’t been so bland as written. Cheadle is incapable of giving a dull performance, but McDonagh’s writing shows far less understanding of American cops than of Irish ones. Nevertheless, there are excellent performances all around. As Boyle’s dying mother, Fionnula Flanagan is flat-out wonderful, showing the same disabused view of the world as her son. Liam Cunningham, Mark Strong and David Wilmot are a stitch as the smugglers; in the midst of their psychotic crimes, they take time out to debate whether Nietzsche or Bertrand Russell was the greater philosopher. Gorgeously photographed, wryly witty and well-paced, “The Guard” is a delightful surprise and a sardonic treat.