(Note: I mentioned this on an episode of the podcast awhile ago but in case you missed it, I recently started doing some writing for the Quinte Film Alternative. They’re an organization that shows independent/niche movies at the Empire Theatre here in Belleville, Ontario. If you’re in the area, I highly recommend stopping by. But even if you aren’t nearby, these reviews will still be of interest. The QFA’s organizers have great taste in movies, so look for these films at an independent theatre near you. This review originally appeared here.)
In his film The Guard, Irish-born writer-director John Michael McDonagh takes the “buddy cop comedy” formula popularized in Hollywood and infuses it with his own unique sensibilities. The result is a hilarious, foul-mouthed and at times, strangely poignant film.
The central plot begins with Gerry Boyle (Brendan Gleeson), a sergeant with the Irish police, investigating a mysterious murder in a small town. Soon, it becomes apparent the victim is tied in with a ring of drug traffickers, and Boyle finds himself paired up with Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle), an FBI agent sent over to track down a large shipment of cocaine.
Everett’s function in the movie is simple enough – he’s the businesslike, by-the-book straight man. As you might expect, it’s the Boyle character that gets the much more complex, layered treatment. The Guard received a nomination for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, and Boyle is unquestionably a big part of the film’s appeal.
Right from the film’s opening moments, it’s apparent Boyle doesn’t have a politically-correct bone in his body. He’s the kind of man who knows how to find people’s buttons, and who delights in pushing them as often as possible.
Soon enough, Everett learns this firsthand. As he briefs the local cops about the smugglers they’ll be chasing, he shows a series of mug shots. Noticing each suspect is white, Boyle brings the proceedings to a screeching halt. “I thought only black lads were drug dealers?” he remarks with mock confusion, momentarily stunning the African-American FBI man.
Furthermore, Boyle has what you might call a questionable moral compass. In other words, he’s not at all averse to breaking the laws he’s supposed to be upholding. If this means stealing drugs from a crime scene or spending a day off cavorting with a pair of hookers, well then, so be it.
But as Boyle and Everett are forced to work together, Everett soon learns his partner’s tactless manner conceals a surprisingly cunning mind. When he’s inclined to be, Boyle can be as principled and honourable as any lawman. A grudging respect grows between the two cops (although Boyle never lets up with his ribbing, seizing any opportunity to take his FBI counterpart down a peg).
Much of Boyle’s humanity comes out in scenes showing his relationship with his terminally-ill mother, Eileen (Fionnula Flanagan). Their early conversations reveal the source of Boyle’s offbeat sense of humour as the two banter back and forth about drug use and sexual escapades. Later, these talks take on a more solemn tone, but McDonagh shows a deft touch, smartly avoiding letting things get maudlin. Even when The Guard is at its most serious, the uproariously funny dialogue is there to break the tension and keep you laughing.
While Boyle gets many of the best lines in the script and is the film’s most complex character, he’s far from being the only interesting person onscreen. As their investigation heats up, Boyle and Everett interact with a host of fascinating people, including a cowboy hat wearing IRA member, numerous unhelpful locals, and a crew of sociopathic gangsters who quote Nietzsche and debate the merits of Bertrand Russell and Dylan Thomas.
Ultimately, McDonagh seems uninterested in formulating a needlessly intricate procedural about a drug deal. Indeed, much of the story seems to come together almost by happenstance.
His film succeeds not because of its plotting, but because of his gift for creating characters, giving them unique voices and personalities, and putting them on a collision course.