A sweary, violent, effusive black comedy starring Brendan Gleeson as a gruff Irishman with little tolerance for rules and directed by someone named McDonagh. No, you are not watching In Bruges, but The Guard, the new film by screenwriter/director John Michael McDonagh. Of course, the comparisons are easy to come by and largely a product of lazy writing (ahem), but it would take a special kind of selective blindess not to notice them.
Both films combine elements of buddy comedy with fish-out-of-water-tales, violent criminals on the run and jokes involving taking drugs and sleeping with prostitutes. Both feature more swears-per-minute than a George Carlin stand-up set. Both star Brendan Gleeson and embrace his unique screen presence. Yet despite their patent similarities, the McDonagh brothers’ films (John’s brother Martin directed and wrote In Bruges) are simply comparable, rather than symmetrical.
Gleeson stars as Sergeant Gerry Boyle, a member of the Garda (the Irish police force) with a laissez-faire attitude toward crime itself. Sitting idly in his patrol car in the film’s opening sequence, a group of drunk youths speed past, only the sound of their car smashing into a wall awakening Boyle from his daydreaming. Walking up to the wreck, he finds an acid tab in the pocket of one of the dead teens. “I don’t think yer mammy’d be too proud’a that, now” he says, putting the tab in his mouth, looking out into the grey sea: “it’s a fockin’ bee-ootiful day”. This, you feel, is as perfect a summation of Boyle’s personality as it’s possible to make.
Thus when straight-laced FBI agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle) arrives to investigate a huge drug shipment making its way to Boyle’s sleepy backwater, and Boyle is roped in to help with the case, you sense there will be, shall we say, a conflict of interest.
Although not equipped with the most original plot ever conceived, The Guard is an unfettered joy from start to finish. Gleeson and Cheadle, as physically and professionally disparate as it’s possible for two men to be, are each magnificent, supported by a rock-solid cast including the always-brilliant Mark Strong as a professional but somewhat disillusioned drug smuggler and Fionnula Finnegan as Boyle’s terminally ill, but whimsical, mother Eileen.
McDonagh’s gift for snappy, inventive dialogue and accomplished storytelling, not to mention a directorial eye which casts longing looks over a relentlessly overcast Galway, is also hugely impressive. Crafting an accessible comedy without resorting to dull sight gags or gross-out humour, his script is not only peppered with profanity, but emits emotional heft too. The jokes, though, when they come, are incredible, Gerry combining an outrageous, yet charming, disregard for politically correct norms with a linguistic gift for swearing so eloquent it borders on poetic.
Gleeson is the ideal man to bring this dialogue to life. His hangdog features, thick Irish drawl and constant twinkle in the eye mean that even in Gerry’s most scandalous moments, we never think of abandoning him. Cheadle’s Everett is a natural sounding board, lamenting Boyle’s penchant for overstatement while also developing a kind of begrudging respect for the man beneath the mischief. Cheadle is more than game for the brand of uniquely offensive humour which pours out of every pore of McDonagh’s crackling screenplay. Cheadle’s features communicate utter disbelief brilliantly, and much to the American actor’s credit he doesn’t spend the film trying to outdo Gleeson’s magical performance, instead turning a series of reaction shots into miniature masterclasses in mining humour without manic overacting.
This central pair dominate the screen, their almost-camaraderie growing at once stronger and more bizarre as the film continues. McDonagh plays their experiences off each other brilliantly: watch on with joy as Boyle spends his day off cavorting in a hotel room with a pair of impossibly good-looking call girls while Everett mopes about in the Galway rain canvassing for witnesses, all of whom either don’t feel like helping or only speak Gaelic – which he, unsurprisingly, does not. At a slim 96 minutes, The Guard is mercifully free from frippery, zipping along at a beautifully weighted pace as crisp as the wind off the Irish Sea.
In fact, The Guard is a film which excels in getting the most out of every single component: from the actors to the dialogue to the cinematography, not a millimetre of film feels gratuitous, and in doing more with less, John Michael McDonagh has made a brilliantly funny, original movie which could scarcely be improved upon.
Verdict: A superb piece of filmmaking, featuring a stunningly relentless and hysterical turn from Brendan Gleeson in the role of a career, The Guard is one of very few films which doesn’t outstay its welcome, and one of fewer still which makes you laugh the whole way through. A delight.