Starring Don Cheadle, Brendan Gleeson, Fionnula Flanagan, Liam Cunningham, Mark Strong
Dir/Writer: John Michael McDonagh
Running Time: 96mins
In John Michael McDonagh’s black comedy, a highly unorthadox small town Garda (Gleeson) teams up with a straight-laced FBI agent (Cheadle) to take down drug traffickers in Co. Galway. It’s In an intriguing proposition, and where the film soars when sharply tackling culture clash comedy, it is somewhat let down by moments of weak writing and amateurish production.
McDonagh continues the tradition started by his brother Martin, a playwright and director probably best known for In Bruges, of using Irish attitudes and culture as a focal point in his storytelling. The siblings have a masterful grasp of this subject matter, handling their respective material with appropriate levels of authenticity and wit. Indeed McDonagh, John Michael, manages to appeal to a surprisingly wide audience with humor that paints with both broad and fine strokes. Jokes that will perhaps only make sense to those intimately familiar with rural west coast sensibilities are paired off with comedy that is accessible to a much wider audience, while still being culturally apt. This is easily the film’s greatest strength. Subtle moments such as a scene where Cheadle attempts to communicate with a couple who resolutely speak only in Gaeilge are what sets The Guard apart.
Though the comedy and writing are mostly successful, they’re not quite consistent. A lot of the jokes fall squarely on the nose and the script is sometimes more reminiscent of the masturbatory schlock of The Boondock Saints than the biting dryness of In Bruges. Characters liberally break into unprovoked diatribes in moments that feel more like an excuse to jam in a witty monologue than any form of plot progression. Other deficiencies in the script include an awkwardly handled corrupt cop sub-plot, and an ending that is clumsily inconclusive. Still, there’s plenty of terrific material here, and a few cringey or questionable moments can’t do too much to hurt the film overall.
Brendan Gleeson goes above and beyond in his performance as the titular Guard. Being both the dramatic and comedic centre of the movie, it’s no exaggeration to say he carries the picture. Few actors could engage in drug use, robbery, soliciting sex, racism and a deluge of other deplorable acts and still come out as a likable protagonist at the other end. Yet that is exactly what Gleeson does, in perhaps the role he was born to play.
The Guard exists in a strange limbo where the professional meets the amateur. The principal cast, especially Gleeson, all deliver wonderful performances. The supporting cast, on the other hand, are generally rubbish. The direction is a similarly mixed affair. About half of the scenes, be they action or drama, feel tightly constructed and expertly shot. The other half wouldn’t make into an episode of Ros na Rún. The performance disparity is perhaps not too shocking; obviously Galway’s acting scene isn’t going to set the world on fire. However, the incongruous direction seems to indicate McDonagh is still getting to grips with the craft.
The Guard is a clever, charming, cheeky black comedy, and a magnificent showpiece for the potential of Irish cinema. Much like its protagonist, the film is distinctly rough around the edges, but perhaps all the more likable for it.