Film Review: The Guard

John Michael McDonagh’s droll debut feature makes an ideal vehicle for Brendan Gleeson as an eccentric cop battling drug dealers in the west of Ireland.

Acclaimed playwright Martin McDonagh (The Pillow Man, A Behanding in Spokane) made a notable feature film directing debut in 2008 with In Bruges, a disarmingly dark comic crime tale starring Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell. Now it’s big brother’s turn to prove there’s more than one accomplished auteur in the family.

John Michael McDonagh, screenwriter of 2003’s Ned Kelly, makes his directing bow with The Guard, a sly cop-buddy film set in picturesque Connemara in the west of Ireland. Apart from the fact that both In Bruges and The Guard provide excellent showcases for the irresistible Brendan Gleeson (best-known to audiences as Professor “Mad Eye” Moody in the Harry Potter series), they share a lacerating wit, sudden jolts of violence, and an offhanded approach to narrative that puts quirky characterizations front and center.
Gleeson plays Sgt. Gerry Boyle, a small-town policeman with a jaded attitude toward his line of work and a distinct lack of regard for authority. In his spare time, he’s been known to dabble in illegal substances and he saves his most dapper outfits for visits from local prostitutes. But Boyle is also well-read and utterly devoted to his feisty mother, who is dying of cancer.

The plot kicks in when Boyle and his untested new partner investigate a murder that appears to be tied into an international drug-smuggling ring. The case is so potentially big that the FBI sends over an agent, Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle), to lend his expertise. Within minutes of the straitlaced Everett’s initial briefing of the local police, Boyle gets under his skin, mischievously (one hopes) playing on the incongruity of a black G-man in rural Ireland. (“I’m Irish,” Boyle deadpans. “Racism is part of our culture.”) As their relationship evolves, with Boyle showing more dimension and resourcefulness than he first let on, Everett has trouble deciding whether his Irish cohort is unhinged, or crazy like a fox.
At first indifferent to the case, Boyle soon finds he has a personal stake in the outcome and the levels of local corruption that are coming to light. Gradually, he discovers his own personal code of honor, and a streak of valor that fuels him in the movie’s tense, western-style climactic showdown at a pier.

Gleeson, such an engaging presence in films ranging from Braveheart to Gangs of New York, hasn’t had this rewarding a role since, well, In Bruges. Boyle is an exceedingly complex, mysterious, unclassifiable character, and Gleeson makes his arrogance and cantankerousness not just tolerable, but cheekily enjoyable. Cheadle, whose participation as co-star and executive producer, helped get the film financed, plays straight man to Gleeson, but his solid partnering is certainly an asset here. Liam Cunningham and Mark Strong sink their teeth into their roles as improbably erudite drug dealers, alongside bug-eyed David Wilmot as their more obviously sociopathic henchman. The great veteran Irish actress Fionnula Flanagan makes the most of her warm, poignant moments as Boyle’s fading but still formidable mother.

Combining picturesque locations with stylized interiors, novice director McDonagh shows a confident hand, particularly in the well-staged shoot-’em-up that ends the film. A final unexpected turn adds another layer of mischief to this irreverent Irish romp.