Film review: The Guard

November 25, 2011

originally published in the Raleigh News & Observer

It’s like the old Irish proverb says: Nothing can ruin a good cup of tea like running afoul of an international cocaine smuggling ring.

"The Guard"

In the often funny, often indecipherable Irish comedy “The Guard,” Brendan Gleeson plays Sergeant Gerry Boyle, the unorthodox but honest cop who patrols rural County Galway in Ireland. Boyle is no saint – he has a standing arrangement with the local escort service and enjoys sampling the occasional clubs drugs he pulls from the pockets of delinquent teens. When a local crime figure is found with a professionally placed bullet in his head, Boyle regards the death as a proper comeuppance, more a paperwork nuisance than a crime.

But as played by Gleeson in a rich comic performance, Boyle also has a shaggy nobility and a rigid code of honor. He protects the local kids, visits his ailing mum, and stubbornly defies his better-dressed, on-the-take superiors down at headquarters. Boyle’s routine is disrupted, however, with the discovery of a major cocaine smuggling operation in sleepy Galway.

Enter the straitlaced FBI agent Wendell Everett, played by the usually infallible Don Cheadle. Boyle and Everett proceed to investigate the case and get on each other’s nerves in classic buddy cop style. “The Guard” has plenty of funny scenes, most of which rely on Gleeson’s proficiency with colorfully profane Irish idioms. The bad guys – a trio of semi-competent drug runners led by tough guy Mark Strong (“Sherlock Holmes”) – have some good routines, too. In one funny scene, Strong’s character despairs over the state of the world when the hayseed Galway cops don’t even know how to handle a proper pay-off.

Cheadle gets a few good laughs as the fish-out-of-water American, but seems to be idling for much of the movie. As he’s demonstrated in other films, like the “Ocean’s 11” franchise, Cheadle can steal scenes at will with his comic chops and high-octane charisma. With “The Guard,” he never quite puts it into gear.

Director John Michael McDonagh, working from his own script, keeps the energy up with a brisk pace and a playful visual style of bright primary colors. He also gives the characters room to breathe, extending scenes for throwaway dialogue digressions in Tarantino style. Many snappy jokes are made at the expense of, oh, Bertrand Russell, Disneyland, racism, Derringer pistols, Chet Baker … these sorts of things.

As the title suggests, “The Guard” is focused on its protagonist and is best appreciated as an artfully comic character study. The buddy-cop nonsense and crime procedural elements are really just there to give Gleeson’s portrait something to hang on. The film has one rather big problem, though: Gleeson’s thick Irish brogue is often literally indecipherable. I grew up with Scotch-Irish uncles who slipped into Gaelic after too many whiskey sours, but Gleeson’s mumbly, rapid-fire line readings and tortured phrasings had me wishing for subtitles several times.

It’s some weird testament to the script and performances that I found the movie as funny as I did, because I think I missed about half the jokes.

Grade: B
Director: John Michael McDonagh
Cast: Brendan Gleeson, Don Cheadle, Mark Strong, Fionnula Flanagan
Length: 1 hour, 36 minutes Rated R for pervasive language, some violence, drug material and sexual content

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