In Bruges, In Galway
(The Guard, John Michael McDonagh, Ireland, 2011, 96 mins)
Imagine if Lethal Weapon didn’t take place on the chalk line-laden streets of Los Angeles, but on the Craggy Island-esque dreary moors and drab schemes of Ireland’s Connemara district. Now, imagine that Mel Gibson’s Martin Riggs was not a chiselled, partially deranged ex-commando, but an overweight, pill-popping, hooker-frequenting member of the Garda. Then, picture Danny Glover’s Murtaugh as a little more strait-laced and, well… not too old for this shit. Do that and you’ll just about have an idea of what the opener of this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival, Ned Kelly-scripter John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard, is like.
Essentially aping Hot Fuzz’s shtick of transposing the trappings of the ‘buddy cop’ subgenre to a rural, deceptively tranquil locale, The Guard follows unorthodox Sergeant Gerry Boyle (Brendan Gleeson) – the aforementioned Riggs analogue – as he is reluctantly drawn into FBI agent Wendell Everett’s (Don Cheadle) investigation of a drug smuggling ring operating out of Galway.
As synopses go, it’s not the most original, but from that rather slight base, McDonagh – who also scripted the piece – utilises some exceptionally sharp writing, a cast of memorable misfits, and a towering performance from Gleeson to render The Guard a worthy curtain-raiser for this year’s Festival.
The brother of In Bruges director Martin, McDonagh obviously shares some of his sibling’s filmic DNA. Like that surreal Belgian trip, there’s a sense of barely contained anarchy to apparently sleepy Connemara, and in no place is this simmering strangeness more evident than in its inhabitants. From a blunderbuss carrying, sheep bothering bar brawler to a perma-bike-riding, crime scene-frequenting young lad who wouldn’t look out of place in Deliverance, the town’s denizens add a dark, surreal, League of Gentlemen-like humour to the piece.
Still, this is Gleeson’s film. From the second his burly Sergeant stoats onto the scene, gulping down a pill found in a car crash fatality’s pockets (‘I don’t think your mammy’d be too pleased about that, now’), he dominates. It helps that his part is so well written, of course. McDonagh initially paints him as a lazy, vulgar, racist oaf – ‘I thought only black lads were drug dealers,’ he remarks at one of Wendell’s briefings – before gradually drawing back Boyle’s layers to reveal a surprisingly complex character.
What initially comes across as ignorance eventually reveals itself as a way for the fiercely individualistic, contradictory Boyle to make the grey world of Connemara more bearable. Gleefully playing on stereotypes – ‘I’m Irish; racism is part of my culture’ – and debunking first impressions – the supposedly cold-hearted Sergeant dotes on his cancer-riddled mother (the charming Fionnula Flanagan) – as Wendell puts it, it’s hard to tell whether Boyle is ‘really motherfucking stupid or really motherfucking smart.’ As McDonagh’s debut advances towards its finale, it definitely seems to be the latter.
That’s not to say he evolves into a stereotypical hero, though. Rather than fall back on the tired cliché of the vengeful, single-minded copper, McDonagh keeps The Guard feeling fresh by having Boyle remain reluctant to get involved in Wendell’s case until the absolute last minute. Indeed, until the finale, the titular Garda’s most heroic act is drinking an entire milkshake in a single gulp. And, like the best police protagonists, the Sergeant sees the law more as a set of guidelines, indulging in prostitute threesomes, tampering with evidence, and even selling guns to a Stetson-wearing, Beetle-driving IRA member. Like a dirtier Dirty Harry or an even less predictable Martin Riggs, Gleeson’s Boyle stays just on the right side of amorality, and makes for a fascinating lead.
Likewise, Gleeson and Cheadle possess that much-lauded buzzword – chemistry – by the bucketload. As Wendell, the dedicated professional, warms to Boyle and begins to see through his guise – aided in no small part by several obligatory pints of Guinness – a guarded respect emerges between the two men and their back-and-forth banter gifts The Guard some of its best exchanges.
Also worthy of mention are Liam Cunningham, David Wilmot and Mark Strong as the band of drug dealers. Again toying with genre conventions, the trio, while undoubtedly psychotic, wilfully rib cop film clichés – when an inspector collecting a pay-off utters the familiar words ‘is it all there?,’ Mark Strong’s Cornell is incensed, waxing lyrical about how skimming cash from a bribe would defeat its entire purpose. Likewise, the three veer off on frequently amusing philosophical and existential tangents every time they’re together, offering a welcome and witty antithesis of the traditional hard-edged drug dealers of the silver screen.
While McDonagh does seem to lose his way a little in the third act, and the focus on Boyle means the other characters, even the ever-dependable Cheadle, are underdeveloped, the sheer hilarity and surprising intelligence of The Guard more than compensates. Littered with eminently quotable dialogue and a memorable performance, or, more accurately, inhabitation from Gleeson, The Guard signals John Michael McDonagh to be a talent at least equal to his award-winning brother, and ushers Sergeant Gerry Boyle into the pantheon of great police antiheroes. Move over, Harry – with a performance this good, you don’t need luck.