A blackly comic, modern day Western set in the Wild West - of Ireland, The Guard is Sergeant Gerry Boyle (Brendan Gleeson) of the Galway Garda, a country copper whose days are spent drinking, whoring and consuming confiscated drugs. From the first scene, it’s obvious Boyle’s more Bad Lieutenant than Dixon of Dock Green, when, after witnessing a high-speed crash, he goes through the pockets of the dead boy racers, pockets their drugs for himself, drops some acid and comments on what a lovely morning it is.
Cheerfully decadent, it’s not that Gleeson’s Boyle is a bad cop; he’s just not a very good one. More concerned with an easy life, he lives by his own moral code and is content to skate by in life with a minimum of effort, preferring to occupy his time with drink, drugs and prostitutes dressed as train conductors rather than mundane police work. But when a drug dealer is murdered on his patch and his new partner goes missing, Boyle finds himself the only incorruptible cop in town and forced to forge an uneasy alliance with straight-laced, by-the-book FBI agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle) in order to bring down an international drug ring headed by stressed crime lord Liam Cunningham and philosophical, world-weary gangster Mark Strong who’s “sick and tired of the kind of people you have to deal with in this business.”
A funny, profane, joyously politically incorrect, sweetly melancholic twist on the traditional buddy cop movie, The Guard is a guilty pleasure. The humour is dark and, at times, deliberately uncomfortable; Gleeson’s Boyle is an unreconstructed cop without a filter, unconsciously spouting casual racism. His first meeting with Cheadle’s Everett is both hilarious and mortifying – during a briefing about the dealers they are after (who are all white) Gleeson asks “I thought only black lads were drug dealers? And Mexicans?” It’s a moment that elicits as many winces of embarrassment as it does laughs, Gleeson going on to comment “I’m Irish. Racism is part of our culture,” when ordered to apologise for his racial slurs.
Written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, who previously penned Ned Kelly and whose brother Martin gave us In Bruges, The Guard is an unashamed modern Western, with an epic Leone-esque soundtrack courtesy of Calexico which befits the bleak Galway landscapes Gleeson strides through. The script crackles with foul-mouthed, poetic vulgarity and McDonagh’s vision of Connemara is peopled with suspicious locals who refuse to speak anything but Gaelic, IRA armourers in cowboy hats, a pubescent gun-nut, venal career cops, hookers who hang out in ice cream parlours and philosophical gangsters discussing Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and Bertram Russell.
In a part tailor-made for his gruff, crumpled persona, The Guard works because of Gleeson who dominates the film and has never been better. His Boyle is a mix of bluster, vulgarity and charm, out of step with the world around him, his lazy apathy masking the honourable man inside. While you’re never really in any doubt that, come the final reel, Gleeson’s Boyle will step up and do what a man’s gotta do, in a Summer stuffed full of bland, lycra-clad, square-jawed supermen (Green Lantern, Captain America, X-Men: First Class), The Guard dares to give us a satisfying, relatable hero in the shape of a slovenly, morally wayward country copper.
John Michael McDonagh
Brendan Gleeson, Don Cheadle, Mark Strong, Liam Cunningham, David Wilmot
John Michael McDonagh