By Mike Richardson
When straight-laced FBI operative Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle) travels to Ireland and is partnered with gruff, local Garda Sergeant Gerry Boyle (Brendan Gleeson) in an attempt to thwart some drug traffickers, you’d expect a fish-out-of-water, odd-couple cop movie like Red Heat (1988) or even In the Heat of The Night (1967). With John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard, however, you get so much more.
Despite the familiar setup The Guard plays with expectations from the off. Gleeson’s Boyle isn’t so much an ‘unorthodox cop who gets the job done‘, but an unconventional, cynic with his own rules that include removing drugs from a corpse, to protect its mother’s feelings, and dropping a tab of acid to brighten his day. The odd couple / fish out of water / buddy buddy / cop movie clichés are few and far between. Instead they are replaced by the politically incorrect (and very funny) world view of Sergeant Boyle and his excessive misbehaviour, both in and out of uniform. Boyle’s life consists of unashamed drinking, drug taking, unprofessionalism, whoring, swearing, overt racism, ball scratching and Y-Front wearing but still, somehow, retains the cool charisma of a favourite uncle at a wedding reception throughout. The Bad Lieutenant behaviour is balanced with Boyle’s touching relationship with his terminally ill mother, played barefaced and saccharine-free by Fionnula Flanagan.
This film could easily, and lazily, have thrown together these two mismatched cops (uptight, wealthy, black, urbane American vs. laid back, working class, racist, rural Irishman) into a preconception-busting, mind-broadening, crime-solving partnership, that sees them catch the bad guys, learn from each other and form an unlikely friendship.
The Guard doesn’t do this. Boyle doesn’t fight crime on his day off, (“In my experience 24 hours makes very little difference, regardless of what they say”) and gets through his day only with the sweet relief of LSD and dot to dot books. While the relationship between the leads and the investigation do progress, it’s a character-driven comedy, even if it does lead to a Butch and Sundance blaze of glory finale with the gangsters.
The film’s director and writer, John Michael McDonagh, has crafted a tidy comedy that will, through no fault of its own, invite comparisons with the (equally swearey) crime-comedy In Bruges (2008) as it was directed by his brother (Martin McDonagh) and also starred Gleeson. It’s an obvious but unnecessary comparison. The Guard is tough enough and funny enough to stand up on its own. The script trips along at a smart pace, the jokes are so frequent that any that fall flat are forgotten when the next one appears. Don Cheadle shows his skill at comedy, playing it straight as an arrow. Mark Strong adds another London drug dealer to his body of work, but the script (and the performance) raises it far above the usual mockney geezer gangster. At the heart and spine of the film is a perfect performance from Gleeson in an original and delightful role. Beyond that, it’s not a sequel, it not a re-make, it’s not typical, it’s not Hollywood and it’s (thankfully) not in 3D: it’s just great.