One of the best films of the last few years is In Bruges, a melancholy comedy about a pair of Irish hit men who found themselves in Bruges. I was delighted then, to see Brendan Gleeson in a film so thoroughly unlike In Bruges while being simultaneously reminiscent of it. It wasn’t until the day after that the penny dropped: The Guard is the brother of In Bruges, just as its writer/director John Michael McDonagh is the brother of In Bruges’ writer/director Martin McDonagh. Funny, that.
The Guard, of course, hits an entirely different emotional key: that of endless and shameless laughter. It’s the sort of film that will suddenly attack you a couple of days later while you’re washing your hands and you’ll audibly crack up. It’s a haunting film, but not in the traditional sense of the word: it’s good enough to lodge itself into your brain, to store itself up for inopportune moments of hilarity.
Sergeant Gerry Boyle (Brendan Gleeson) is a member of the Garda in a remote Irish town. He takes drugs from corpses and consumes them, he looks dispassionately at car accidents, he claims that he can’t help being racist because he’s Irish and it’s “part of my culture”. On the same day that he gains a new partner, FBI agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle) comes to town in search of drug traffickers.
Though Boyle may be bent he’s not corrupt, and the two make an unlikely team: pseudo-racist Irish man and ultra competent American. While it sounds like a traditional buddy comedy, it really isn’t; nothing about The Guard is exactly as you would expect it to be, at least to non-Irish audience, and it feels very fresh as a result.
The Guard is subversively dumb crime comedy at its finest. I say “dumb crime” in the nicest possible way, because it’s a recognisable genre in the UK. Popularised by Guy Ritchie before he became a man of questionable talent, it’s a respectable enough lark and one that Brendan Gleeson proves himself perfect for. When not every line of dialogue in a movie is exposition, it’s allowed to be about whatever it wants if it’s not too “random”, and consequently we get characters rather than plot devices. The drug traffickers discuss philosophy in between paying people off, making threats and disposing of obstacles. They are self aware without being overbearingly meta, and Mark Strong once again proves his worth outside the comic book movie milieu.
The film’s main appeal is Gleeson, who remains thoroughly unpredictable throughout. He’s racist by design (“I’m Irish, it’s part of my culture”), but somehow not unpleasantly so, because you know he’s just trying to get a rise rather than committing to his material. He’s “either really fucking dumb or really fucking smart”, and Everett is never able to pin either label precisely on him. Boyle is a creature of his own device, beholden to no man and devoted to only one person: his mother. Gleeson is the true joy of the film and his performance is pitch perfect; his little smile has stuck with me some two months after I saw it. Gleeson is an excellent bait and switcher: from his introduction investigating a drug fuelled car crash one expects a certain moroseness, only to immediately have these expectations dashed by an acid trip. Gleeson inhabits the role and the dialogue and makes somewhat outlandish proceedings seem entirely natural. He is in his element and Cheadle is a more than capable straight man, frequently bewildered but never flustered.
The Guard is a film of pleasures both small and large, showing that a clever script paired with diligent actors willing to sell their material to you can oft times make the greatest movies. The funniest movie I’m likely to see in 2011.