The Guard is kind of an @$$hole. Not the movie. The movie’s fine. But the Irish policeman played by Brendan Gleeson in The Guard is an unrepentant son of a bitch with no patience for fools, bureaucrats and or anybody else for that matter. And we love him for it. Gleeson’s performance is bound to go down as one of the best of the year, and the movie’s not half bad either.
John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard is a buddy-cop movie of sorts, modeled in the lackadaisical vein of In Bruges, which was directed by McDonagh’s brother. The similarly laid-back camera work, droll performances and easygoing crime plots have preordained that the movies be discussed within the same sentences, even if the director's weren't related. And while The Guard doesn’t quite have the unexpected comic crescendos of Martin McDonagh’s Oscar-nominated comedy, it does have the same crisp wit and strength of character. Gleeson plays Sergeant Gerry Boyle, just about the only police officer in all of Connemara, Gaetacht, Ireland. He takes drugs, enjoys the company of prostitutes and views police procedure as an polite suggestion at best. He needles his superior officers and plays the fool in order to keep people off their guard, or possibly just so that they won’t ask much of him. He’s capable of more, and over the course of The Guard he proves it.
A group of international drug smugglers played by Dog Soldiers’ Liam Cunningham, King Arthur’s David Wilmot and Green Lantern’s Mark Strong have moved into town, and they’re planning a major score. The bodies don’t so much pile up as they linger in the corner, but even a pair of homicides is enough to feel like a crime wave in Connemara. FBI Agent Wendell Everett, played by Don Cheadle, arrives on the scene and he forms an uneasy alliance with Boyle. Everett can’t tell if his new partner is the dumbest man he’s ever met or the smartest, and really takes exception to Boyle’s errant but unconvincing racism. I particularly like the way that everyone assumes Everett is a behavioral psychologist, and their obvious disappointment when they discover that he just catches drug dealers instead.
It’s rare to find a creation like Sergeant Boyle in films these days, when protagonists are usually either total ciphers or antiheroes who deserved to be called “flawed” in the same way that a third C.S.I. spin-off deserves to be called “edgy.” Boyle’s a man who gets off on the discomfort of others but not their pain. He simply can’t suffer fools gladly, but for some reason has wound up in a job where’s he surrounded by them. Acting like he’s beneath his superiors and even his peers’ scorn efficiently keeps them at arm’s length, which is how he likes it, but that distance from the bureaucracy and corruption also makes him the one good cop we see in The Guard, even though he acts like the worst one imaginable. Gleeson lets Boyle’s kinder nature shine through in tender (but still acerbic) exchanges with his dying mother – played by The Others’ Fionnula Flanagan – and eventually even Everett sees the good in him. If anybody ever writes a fan fiction where Boyle teams up with The Wire’s Jimmy McNulty, please e-mail it to me.
The Guard ends as all cop movies must, with a shootout and an explosion, but the film builds to that finale with quiet dignity, giving the sudden burst of action a dramatic heft that's usually alien to this kind of thing. Until then this is a character study first, a light comedy second, and a cop drama somewhere around the periphery, obscured by debates about philosophy and unusual images of Brendan Gleeson in a wetsuit. It’s a small film about a big character, and I like it very much.
CRAVE Online Rating: 8/10