Eric D. Snider February 2, 2011
Martin McDonagh, the caustically funny Irish playwright responsible for stage hits on both sides of the Atlantic (including The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Lonesome West), successfully translated his perverse talents to the big screen a few years ago with the eccentric crime caper In Bruges. Now his older brother, John Michael McDonagh, has gotten into the act, and you can see the family resemblance.
The Guard, John’s feature debut as writer and director, is set in the same part of western Ireland as most of Martin’s plays, and shows the same fascination with violence, gallows humor, and tart, profanity-laden dialogue. John Michael McDonagh is no Martin McDonagh (which I’m sure he’ll never get tired of being told), but The Guard is a promising start.
He borrowed In Bruges star Brendan Gleeson to play the lead, a County Galway police sergeant named Gerry Boyle who doesn’t play by the book. This is notable because in rural Ireland (or so the movie would have us believe) playing by the book is optional anyway. The notion of obeying the rules is treated with disdain. Told he has not followed the appropriate procedure in some matter, Boyle says, “Why don’t you f*** off to America with your ‘appropriate’?” What’s interesting is that this is considered a valid response.
Speaking of the Yanks, an FBI agent named Everett (Don Cheadle) arrives to work with the Irish cops, including Boyle, on the matter of a huge shipment of cocaine that’s rumored to be making its way toward local ports. You’ve seen this arrangement before: fastidious cop is teamed with loose cannon; they bicker; hilarity ensues. Hilarity does ensue, but McDonagh generally avoids the cliches that these characters might fall into. Where he doesn’t avoid them, he subtly mocks them. The Guard is less overtly satiric compared to Hot Fuzz, but the films are similar in that Boyle and his colleagues have been influenced by badass American cop movies — and, what’s more, are aware of this influence.
Everett isn’t sure whether Boyle is competent or incompetent, brilliant or stupid. Boyle, for his part, starts their relationship with a few shockingly racist observations. (“I’m Irish, sir,” he explains. “Racism is part of me culture.”) He is blasé about small crimes, takes drugs, and cavorts with prostitutes on his days off, but he’s dogged and persistent when a murder occurs. He goes out of his way to be offensive — the arrival of the FBI means he can make a joke about Waco — but he’s a softie at heart, visiting his aged mother (Fionnula Flanagan) at a nursing home and engaging in vulgar banter with her. Gleeson plays Boyle with all of his considerable gusto and gruff charm, making him a joy to watch.
The drug traffickers, meanwhile (including Mark Strong and Liam Cunningham), are the type of villains who quote philosophers between murders, nicely encapsulating the mixture of quirk and violence that is the McDonagh family calling card.
Since this is a variation on the police procedural or detective story, it would be nice if the crime aspect — what the bad guys are actually up to, and how the cops figure it out — were more interesting. All of McDonagh’s cleverness seems to have been expended on characters and dialogue rather than on inventing a fresh story — which isn’t a bad choice to make, if a choice must be made, but still. The film deserves better than a mundane assemblage of action-movie plot devices.
I’m left with the impression that Don Cheadle isn’t given enough to do in the film, although maybe it’s just that he’s overshadowed by Gleeson. Cheadle and his character are both outsiders here. This is a very Irish, very McDonagh, very Gleeson production, with the requisite amount of cheerfully abrasive humor and mayhem.
* * * *
Eric D. Snider (website) is not very Irish.
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