Rating: 3½ stars (out of 4)
The Guard (2011): Written and directed by John Michael McDonagh. Starring: Brendan Gleeson, Don Cheadle, Mark Strong, David Wilmot, and Liam Cunningham. Rated R for pervasive language, some violence, drug material and sexual content. Running time: 96 minutes.
The Guard is written the way I wish more comedies were written: fast-paced, acidically witty, and with an attitude that just doesn’t give a bleep. It’s unfortunate about its limited release; it’s almost as if the studio believed the film was “too Irish” for its American audience. That’s a shame, because John Michael McDonagh’s film is a heavy reminder of what’s sorely missing from American comedy these days.
The film centers on Sergeant Gerry Boyle (Brendan Gleeson, who played Mad-Eye Moody in the Harry Potter films), an Irish police officer (the eponymous “Guard”). He is a seemingly apathetic and irreverent law enforcer, more likely to dole out wisecracks than justice in the course of a typical work day.
Brendan Gleeson is at his best here playing the larger-than-life Boyle; I doubt many other actors could play such an offensive git and get away with it. Gleeson has all the bluster and presence needed for such a character, but he also has the acting chops to pull off the character’s idiosyncrasies. Most times we can’t tell if the Boyle is simply naive or a great practitioner of Socratic irony. I won’t be surprised if Gleeson nabs himself a Golden Globe or even an Oscar nomination.
After a series of mysterious murders within his jurisdiction, Boyle meets with FBI Agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle), who informs him about an international drug smuggling ring within his area. Later, the two team up to eliminate the cartel amidst corruption within Boyle’s own force.
But there’s really no reason for me to belabor plot details any further: this is a movie more concerned with funny than anything else. Hijinx ensue. Hilarious hijinx, particularly in scenes where Gleeson and Cheadle share the screen.
Cheadle, perhaps one of Hollywood’s more underrated actors, is also in top form. While he expectedly plays straight man to Gleeson’s unpredictable barnstormer, he soon learns to adapt to the Irish guard’s wry humor and unleashes a few gibes of his own. Conversations between the two utterly demolish political correctness, paving the way for laughs.
McDonagh makes full use of his primary actors. I believe if the film weren’t wedged into 96 minutes, he could easily have expanded his villains as well. Our main antagonist Clive Cornell (played by Mark Strong, who is given much stronger material here than in Kick-Ass) muses on the meaningless of his cushy life, but we never get much more than that. His cohorts seem interesting—but we never learn much about them. The film introduces many comic premises, many of which could have been comically executed, and many of which may have been edited out in post-production. It’s a small gripe for a film which executes so much of its comic material so well.
I might also make a note that John Michael McDonagh has an issue that most filmmakers don’t: he lives in the shadow of his younger brother Martin, a renowned playwright and filmmaker (whose film In Bruges this reviewer considers one of the greatest of all time). But really, the elder brother need not fear the comparisons. While Martin’s works run the gamut between farce and tragedy and everything in between, John Michael’s debut film stays on the lighter side of things. Are there similarities? Of course. But John Michael does not seek to outdo his brother. He pays homage more to Lethal Weapon or 48 Hours than to Martin’s bloody and brilliant comedy-dramas.
Funny is the primary goal of the film, and funny it is. That said, it might be an adjustment for some American audiences. The crowd I saw it with was receptive, but seemed a bit uncomfortable laughing at some of the more racially-charged humor. This is not a film that seeks to entertain a mass audience. It’s going to make humor on its own terms, whether you like it or not. And if that’s not your cup of tea, you’ve got to at least respect the film for having some real cojones.