Cut from very much the same cloth as his brother’s hugely successful hit-man comedy, In Bruges, John Michael McDonagh’s debut feature is a puerile, tongue-in-cheek, police story about an unorthodox partnership between an Irish Guard with a confrontational sense of humour and a stiff upper lipped, African American FBI agent. Yet this underw-helming and formulaic description would be a disservice to what has to be one of the most surprisingly humorous and unique action/comedy films of the last decade.
Sgt. Gerry Boyle (Brendan Gleeson) of the Galway Garda is not your conventional police officer. Indeed, this fact becomes instantly apparent during the film’s opening scenes, where we accompany this bungling, idiosyncratic cop on a callout. It’s here, amongst the wreckage of a recent traffic incident, that we first encounter Boyle’s morally dubious approach to law enforcement. As he frisks the bodies of this tragic accident’s casualties, he nonchalantly pockets a stash of hallucinogenic drugs, perfectly setting the tone for this facetious tale. Set against a backdrop of a jovially backward community and the contentious behaviour of its loveably wayward protagonist, it becomes instantly apparent that The Guard is certainly not your usual crime thriller.
Boyle soon finds his quiet little parish has become a bustling centre of attention after the investigation of a murder with ‘occult overtones’ escalates far beyond his jurisdiction, leading to a FBI investigation into a huge cocaine smuggling operation rumoured to be taking place just off the coast of this sleepy town. Straight-laced FBI agent, Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle) is given the arduous task of organising this operation, and soon finds himself paired up with the unscrupulous and opinionated Boyle in an irregular working relationship which must overcome its seemingly inappropriate union (and Boyle’s droll subversive jokes) if their mission is to be a success…
This gloriously enjoyable film truly belongs to Glesson. Whether he’s indulging himself with prostitutes and narcotics, bickering with members of the IRA, provoking racially fuelled disputes with Everett, or comforting his dying mother with humorous stories about brothels and amyl nitrate, it becomes near impossible not to be left completely spellbound by this tour-de force performance. There’s barely a scene where Glesson isn’t present, and in the few moments he is absent, you find yourself impatiently waiting for his return, anxious for another dose or his superbly delivered wit and subtly comedic mannerisms.
The character of Boyle is deceptively complex, a fact apparent from his roguish charm, which manages to enrapture the audience despite his philandering ways. Not only is this a tribute to Glesson but also the remarkably natural and often hysterically funny dialogue. From Boyle’s apparent knowledge of the FBI gleaned solely from watching popular US television shows like C.S.I, to his unrelenting racial attacks on everyone from the British to the Mexicans, and almost every nationality in-between, the film’s engrossing script means the pace never lags. Jammed full of memorable one-liners and endearing laugh out loud scenes, this vivacious and unforgettable comedy’s uncomplicated facade hides a much deeper movie which you’ll be forgiven for not expecting. Indeed, The Guard is a film which impressively manages to mould its own unique identity.
Director and screenwriter John McDonagh is also due much of the praise for this remarkable film. Without his whimsical direction, this otherwise generic action-comedy hybrid would surely have failed to deviate from the usual stigmas that often plague this amalgamation of genres. Whilst his impressive ear for dialogue (thanks to his Irish heritage) may be the most noticeable weapon in his arsenal, he also does a remarkable job of presenting the surrounding Irish landscape, with Boyle’s sleepy town soon feeling like a home away from home. Shot entirely on location, each set piece occurs in a natural, yet endearingly quirky surrounding, creating a realistic but visually stimulating backdrop for the action to unfold.
The Guard is as close to perfection as you could expect from a low budget independent movie, yet there are a few minor flaws which hold the film only inches away from becoming an all time classic. The peripheral characters are sadly overshadowed by Glesson’s magnificence, which considering the quality waiting in the wings is mildly disappointing. Liam Cunningham and Mark Strong are two of the most unsung actors currently working and to see their roles reduced to mere comedy villains is mildly discouraging, yet you’d be hard pressed to find anyone prepared to sacrifice Glesson’s screen time to allow for the development of the supporting cast.
Deep down, The Guard is something of a clandestine examination about social integration. The film’s continued collision between cultures wonderfully depicts the way in which our world is ever changing. Yet, despite the constant battles between races, personalities and socio-economic groups, the film’s confrontational yet surprisingly accepting approach to this climate of change is a subtle eye-opener to the varying attitudes accompanying this progression.
Unfortunately, the Guard’s risqué approach to comedy will probably prevent it reaching a larger audience. Yet it’s fantastic balancing act between black humour, thrilling action and genuine emotion (all achieved so effortlessly) makes it one of the year’s most enjoyable films – and one you’ll find yourself desperate to submerge yourself in time and again.