Back in 2008 Michael McDonagh had great fun with Brendan Gleeson in In Bruges, an offbeat comedy that was critically-lauded. Now his brother John has taken up the mantle and made a film that isn’t related to Michael’s in any narrative sense, but which stands as pretty much the perfect spiritual successor. And again Gleeson is clearly having the time of his life; getting the most out of him seems to run in the McDonagh family.
Here he plays Gerry Boyle, a ‘guarda’ (policeman) in Connemara, Ireland. Not much happens out there in the way of serious police business, but when a gang of drug runners is found to be operating in the area, FBI agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle) is sent over to provide assistance. And there you have the odd-couple setup that frames the action on-screen.
Wendell is pretty strait-laced – formal, polite, professional – whereas Gerry drinks on the job, openly admits to taking drugs and indulges in the local escort services on his day off. Gleeson’s Gerry has an off-kilter personality that is purposefully kept enigmatic and allowed to flourish without much explanation. Is he racist? We don’t really believe so. Is he ignorant? Possibly, but those glints in his eye suggest otherwise. At no stage is the indecipherability of his character more succinctly articulated than when Wendell says to him: “I can’t tell if you’re really f*cking dumb or really f*cking smart.” Gerry smiles in response to this, happy to let the mystery go on.
Meanwhile, the serious business of catching criminals needs attending to. Those criminals take the form of a ragtag band played by Mark Strong (whose line in bad guys is expanding every year), David Wilmot and Liam Cunningham. Their nefarious deeds are intercut with scenes of our heroes getting to know each other, and in the tradition of crime-based comedy their ‘evilness’ is played as much for laughs as it is for narrative drive. In the end, the plot becomes less interesting than the central partnership. The film is more concerned with the relationship formed in pursuit of the bad guys, rather than the end result of that pursuit, which is sensible.
The interplay between Gleeson and Cheadle is very effective, the latter providing the less showy but no less important foil for the former. In a way Gleeson has the opposite role to the one he had in In Bruges – this time he’s the ‘funny one’. That isn’t to say Cheadle doesn’t hold his own in the comedy stakes, however; he gets some good one liners here and there. Around them a supporting cast of locals provide good laughs. Jokes about Ireland (and Dublin in particular) are frequent, and there are a couple of amusing nods to the IRA and MI5 thrown in for good measure.
As with most comedies it can be hit-and-miss at times, but in general it hits far more often than it misses. The Guard also moves along at a delightful pace (for a debut feature, the direction certainly is impressively confident), stopping only on occasion to allow more serious beats to fall gently into place. There is one particularly touching moment involving a book. Sure, the bad guys don’t make too much of an impression (excepting one good scene between Gleeson and Wilmot), but it’s a buddy comedy at heart, and a good one. The ambiguous ending raises a smile rather than a frown, and leaves one hoping that the McDonagh brothers will continue to find charismatic and interesting roles for Brendan Gleeson in films to come.