It’s hard to deny that John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard has something of the flavor, feel and approach of his brother Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges (2008). I say that as an observation, though, not as a criticism. Goodness knows, the world could do with more movies like In Bruges. And the films are hardly interchangeable, nor does The Guard come across like an attempt to copy the earlier film. It’s simply, I think, that there’s a shared sensibility and sense of humor at work here.
The idea behind The Guard is to take what looks like a surefire Hollywood scenario, and then take it places Hollywood wouldn’t go. If it had been made for a Hollywood studio, it would have been pitched with something like, “Brendan Gleeson plays an unorthodox, confrontational Irish police segeant who gets teamed up with Don Cheadle as a straight-arrow, by-the-book FBI agent on the trail of drug smugglers.” The studio would then expect an odd couple cop-buddy picture with a lot of gunplay, stunts and assorted over-the-top derring-do—only to find they’d ended up with both more and less than they were thinking of. Oh, yes, The Guard has the promised elements—though the action isn’t very over-the-top—but it has an inner depth that isn’t normally found in films of its supposed type.
The film is clevery structured in that it sets itself up as a straightforward comedy thriller. Gleeson—who gets the lion’s share of the film in every way—plays Sergeant Gerry Boyle. He can’t be said to be a very good cop. He’s completely blase about a car crash at the beginning of the film—to the point of checking the pockets of one of the victims and pilferring the fellow’s drugs for his own use. And he’s certainly not interested in regulations or protocol or respecting his superiors. When asked about a murder, he responds, “What murder?” When that prompts a question about how many murders he’s got, he ripostes, “That’s for us to know and you to find out.”
Things get no better when he attends the briefing on FBI agent Wendell Everett’s (Cheadle) drug-smuggling case. He makes several racist remarks (explaining that racism is part of his culture), suggests that the value of the drugs is exaggerated (based on his own cocaine-buying experiences), and digs himself into a hole before revealing that one of the wanted men is on a slab in his morgue. This last is what sets up the teaming. The teaming plays more or less to type, except for Cheadle’s comment at one point, “I can’t tell if you’re really motherf***ing dumb or really motherf***ing smart.”
The film is designed to answer that question, but it’s also designed explore—without explaining—Boyle’s complexities. For the film, it’s less about whether he’s dumb or smart, but whether he’s simple or complex. The answer is more suggested that stated. What are we to make of his relationship with his mother (the always-welcome Fionnula Flanagan)? Or that of his relationships with his usual partner (Rory Keenan) or his partner’s wife (Katarina Cas)? Why is this supposedly buffoonish caricature at home watching something as esoteric and arty as Jerzy Skolimowski’s The Shout (1978)? The film lets you simply make of it what you will.
Much the same is true of the trio of bad guys—Liam Cunningham, David Wilmot, Mark Strong—who debate topics like Nietzsche and Bertrand Russell. These are not your standard movie drug smugglers—and that’s both the delight and point of the whole film—that people and things are very rarely what we think they should be or how they might seem in passing. Oh, don’t misconstrue: This is every inch a comedy—albeit a very dark one—with dialogue that brims with cleverly funny lines. (It often feels like a Gaelic version of the Coen Brothers in terms of dialogue.) But it offers a great deal more. It just doesn’t force it on you. Definitely catch this one, but note the reasons for the R rating. They mean it this time. Rated R for pervasice language, some violence, drug material and sexual content.