John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard opens on what appears to be an obvious set-up at first glance: a car full of teens hurtling along the winding and narrow roads of Connemara, in the process of intoxication through the employment of various mediums, surely won’t be suffered to remain in drive for long in a story about an Irish cop out in the Irish countryside. Expectation and past experience dictates that eventually the joy ride will end at the whim of the film’s principle character, the offenders will be punished as the law sees fit, and with justice meted out the story will begin in earnest.
But there’s a snag in that projected narrative, and that snag is Brendan Gleeson’s belligerent and nearly amoral Sergeant Gerry Boyle. He’s not that kind of cop; The Guard, by extension, isn’t that sort of movie. Boyle’s more the type to sift through the pockets of those teenagers, having let nature run its course and allowed them to fatally crash, and pop a couple of the pills they’d just moments before been enjoying themselves. If nothing else, his darkly funny callousness sets the tone for the rest of the film that follows.
John Michael McDonagh’s story of a small town cop getting mixed up with a drug trafficking investigation feels familiar in spite of its gallows humor; it’s almost Hot Fuzz by way of Ireland, except that The Guard has a very blatant fixation on American culture that ends up coming back to American crime films and Westerns instead. And there’s a more general fascination with America that’s held by characters in the film, particularly Boyle (who visited America once explicitly to go to Disneyworld; he still has a picture taken of him with Goofy) but also the film’s primary heavy, a philosophically minded man who scoffs at the mere utterance of what he perceives to be “Americanisms” (in reference to someone saying “good to go”). The Guard almost has a love/hate relationship with America, but its characters so often display a lack of familiarity with U.S. culture that that particular description feels inaccurate.
Regardless it’s that cultural curiosity (bordering on obsession) that creates a comic divide when Boyle, by happenstance, ends up being temporarily allied with FBI Agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle). Everett’s investigating the drug running which Boyle unwittingly involved himself in just by doing his job; he’s no-nonsense and by-the-book, traits made even more obvious when stacked against Boyle’s more unconventional approach to the law. They’re an odd couple for sure, but Boyle uses the opportunity to ask the burning questions about America, revealing his deep-rooted ignorance of American culture in the process. Maybe. The kicker of course is that Boyle’s nigh-impossible to read– is he taking the mickey out of Everett or are these genuine queries he espouses? Everett practically reads the audience’s minds and bluntly puts it as thus: “I can’t tell if you’re really smart, or really dumb.”* Neither can we, Everett. And Boyle’s not tipping his hand in one direction or the other.
If one can really assault The Guard on any substantive terms it might be through its plot– this is fairly standard stuff, a crime story with little real mystery to it and in which we know who the guilty parties are and what they’ve done before we’re even halfway into things. But it’s also not really the point of The Guard, which is much more of a character study and a bit of commentary on how some foreign cultures freely consume elements of American culture while rejecting others outright. If the drug trafficking plot feels like the least important matter on McDonagh’s mind, it’s probably because that’s the reality.
Indeed, The Guard‘s greatest delight lies in watching Boyle’s gruff, stubborn, apathetic garda as he wades through the morass of his daily police work before stumbling on a crime that’s actually worthy of his impressive talents and capabilities. The truth, as is so often the case, is that Boyle’s no slouch; he’s more or less the product of his environment, perhaps, but he possesses a degree of intelligence and cleverness, and though he never bothers to reveal the exact degree of either he’s clearly much quicker and more observant than he wants us to realize. He’s also a genuinely good human being, but he’s even more keen to keep that a secret.
As good as Gleeson is, though, he’s even better when he’s paired up on-screen with Cheadle. It’s a surprising combination, but the results speak for themselves; their chemistry is undeniable as they completely nail scene after scene with each other. Admittedly, they’re so good together that their separation from one another becomes baffling as McDonagh sends them off on their own numerous times, and so one of the film’s few shortcomings becomes clear– though this is nitpicking, since both actors are equally great by themselves. And anyways, there is such thing as too much of a good thing.
Ideally, The Guard will announce John Michael McDonagh as a talent to keep an eye on, though I fear its limited release status may efficiently see to the death of that particular hope. He has a deliciously and decidedly dark sensibility to his humor, occasionally bordering on the morbid, and not only that but the wit and the charm to make it work. I may credit much of the film’s enjoyment to Brendan Gleeson’s effortless portrayal of Boyle, but it’s unfair to not applaud McDonagh for his efforts here. If The Guard is a bit slight, it’s nevertheless a memorable romp in Connemara.
*This dialogue made less colorful by: Censorship!