I’ve well and truly run out of superlatives to describe Brendan Gleeson’s acting with, especially when it comes to his work with the McDonagh brothers. His role as the straight man in Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges showed just how much depth and likabilty he can bring to the table, while his performance in The Guard is everything you could ever want from the protagonist of a movie that falls under the British gangster comedy subgenre.
The Guard is the story of Sgt. Gerry Boyle, policeman on the island of Galway, who finds himself in the middle of a joint effort between Ireland and the US to bust a local drug ring, rumoured to have a new deal worth half a billion euros… or thereabouts, anyway. The plot isn’t particularly important, it’s merely a vehicle for John Michael McDonagh’s subversion of police procedural tropes and common story beats.
The beginning of the movie finds Gerry Boyle nonchalantly looking on as a car full of drugged up young men crashes, killing all of them. Gerry is left unimpressed, his first order of business being to make sure that the drugs are taken out of one of the boys’ pocket, either because he doesn’t want the parents to find out about them (as he says to himself while popping one of the pills into his mouth) or because he simply wanted to keep some of them for himself. We don’t really get Gerry throughout the movie, we just sort of watch him go about his business and wonder if he’s a genuine idiot or simply uninterested in his job.
Then Gerry meets his new partner, a young and enthusiastic man who wants to do everything by the book and to bring justice to any and every wrongdoer. It comes as no surprise that this young idealist is killed early on in the movie, as can be expected from a movie about a jaded cop and his new partner. Usually what follows is a sudden change of heart on the jaded cop’s part, but The Guard isn’t interested in any of that. In fact, this particular movie does its best to avoid exploring any of the themes that are common throughout the police procedural genre. The Guard mocks the modern Hollywood infatuation with sound bite philosophy and surface-level interpretation of otherwise nuanced and complicated concepts. The group of drug dealers spends its car rides quoting philosophers like Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, they throw around quotes without context and accuse each other of not having read the source material. Mark Strong’s character even has faux-serious moments of contemplation regarding the pointlessness of his criminal activity and of life in general. It never comes across as overly absurd, but the satirization is overt and enjoyable, as is the case with the majority of the film’s brilliant script.
Speaking of the script, it could have done with some editing, despite its overall stellar quality. Certain plotlines exist seemingly for the sole purpose of humanizing Gerry, something that is somewhat unnecessary considering the nature of the film. Gerry Boyle, to me, isn’t supposed to be a serious character. He’s very much a caricature, both of the jaded, alcoholic cop archetype and of a certain type of Irishman, one that is ignorant of the outside world and its rules, preferring to think only of the rules of his local village or town. When FBI agent Wendell Everett (portrayed by Don Cheadle) arrives on the island, Gerry Boyle proceeds to badger him with questions about the projects and Compton, despite Everett’s saying that he grew up in a privileged family, away from the “hood”. Boyle either doesn’t hear him or doesn’t care, continuing to ask questions about the ghetto and thinking of Wendell as a gangster. All of this is done with a straight face, leaving the audience to wonder whether Boyle is an idiot, a legitimate racist, or simply someone who is interested in hearing about things that he has never seen or experienced.
The last 20 or so minutes of the movie are a bit too dramatic and seem almost out of tone when analyzed as part of the whole movie, and the ambiguous ending feels a bit forced, leaving the audience to wonder whether Boyle survived his confrontation with Mark Strong and Liam Cunningham’s drug dealer characters.
The dialogue is witty and quick, the character interaction is very reminiscent of that in movies like Snatch and Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels, every exchange feels like a verbal spar. I also appreciated the amount of non-intrusive foreshadowing in the script, it sets up the latter part of the film very well and gives everything that happens a sense of realism and logical consistency. All of this is also helped by the editing, which is fast-paced and gives the film a fresh and energetic look, much like Guy Ritchie’s gangster movies and Edgar Wright’s rapid fire and smash cut comedy, except more understated. It’s not the focus of the funny moments, but it underlines them and gives them some extra oomph. What is it with Brits and visual and technical comedy these days?
Overall, The Guard is an incredibly fun movie, elevated by brilliant acting and an inventive script that brings its characters to life and turns them not into real people, but into people we might wish existed, if only for the comedic value of their very presence.