Dark Irish comedy finds humor in murder, drugs, blackmail and hookers
Directed by John Michael McDonagh
Cast: Brendan Gleeson, Don Cheadle, Mark Strong
The term “black comedy” has become a bit shopworn of late, covering a wide variety of films from mildly edgy dramedies to movies with a truly morbid sense of humor. So let’s try and expand the designation a bit and call The Guard a dark gray comedy. It’s a fitting label, as the film takes place in the dingy, cloud-covered environs of coastal Ireland. And you couldn’t mistake its sense of humor for the lighthearted, good-natured laughs of a Tom Hanks comedy. Put it on a shelf next to other self-mocking, hardscrabble Irish comedies like Neil Jordan’s movie The Butcher Boy or Martin McDonagh’s stage play The Lieutenant of Inishmore, however, and you’ll find a fitting kinship.
The Guard is a pleasant mishmash of indie film subgenres courtesy of writer-director John Michael McDonagh (whose only previous screen outing was writing the 2003 Australian biopic Ned Kelly). The film stars Brendan Gleeson (best known these days as Mad-Eye Moody from the Harry Potter films) and gifts the burly actor with his best front-and-center role since 1998’s criminal biopic The General. Gleeson plays Sgt. Gerry Boyle, a police officer in the sleepy, western Irish region of Connemara. When we meet Boyle in the opening scene, he’s barely roused from his lethargic indifference when a deadly car accident takes place right in front of his parked patrol car. Boyle is a singular creation, and his myth grows larger as McDonagh’s film progresses. Boyle seems to have little real commitment to law enforcement, preferring to spend his days boozing it up, sampling the occasional drug seizure “evidence” and cavorting with prostitutes whenever they’re available. Just to keep himself mildly amused, he regularly lies to and insults everyone around him. But at the end of the day, he’s probably a standup guy. Venal as he might be, he’s not entirely corrupt. Think of him as the warm, fuzzy version of Harvey Kietel’s Bad Lieutenant.
Boyle is briefly stirred from his jaded torpor when American FBI agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle from Crash and Ocean’s Eleven) shows up in town. Seems a trio of drug runners are expected in Connemara soon, lugging with them a half-billion dollars’ worth of cocaine. Boyle and Everett naturally join forces, making this look like a million other contentious buddy cop comedies. But the resemblance is only superficial. The Guard has a much different rhythm to it than the typical Hollywood offering. Although gunplay does eventually rear its ugly head, the film isn’t much on action. It’s more about the odd characters who inhabit this not-so-innocent rural world, and the confounding nature of its main character.
Boyle seems, quite often, like a burned-out, empathy-free, prejudice-filled bastard. Yet every epithet he delivers is handed out with a sly grin, as if he’s merely doing it to test the boundaries of those around him. At times, he appears numb to the bloody crimes being committed right in front of his eyes. Then, there are those rare times when we see him with his terminally ill but lustily cheerful mother (played by Irish treasure Fionnula Flanagan). That’s when his hidden compassion shines through. Even when the big fella is cavorting with a couple of Dublin hookers, he seems like a fun, friendly guy underneath the rough exterior. And yet he can’t help winding up poor, straight-laced Wendell Everett—dropping references to Compton, “the projects” and crack cocaine every chance he gets. (“I’m Irish. Racism is part of my culture,” he innocently volunteers.)
Gleeson, it hardly needs pointing out, is magnificent. He creates a character as well as a mystery—always keeping us on our toes guessing what sort of person Sgt. Boyle really is. His back-and-forth repartee with Cheadle is a highlight. But it’s not the centerpiece of the film. McDonagh gets as much if not more laughs out of his trio of highly philosophical drug runners—Liam Cunningham from Clash of the Titans, Mark Strong from Sherlock Holmes and David Wilmot from “The Tudors.” (“I’m not a psychopath, I’m a sociopath,” points out Wilmot as the group’s wild-eyed killer.)
The Guard is definite indie film fest / art house theater material. Those expecting easily accessible Bad Boys kind of humor and action won’t get the half of it here. Those, however, who admired the laid-back style of Gleeson’s last crime comedy outing, the wonderfully nuanced In Bruges, will certainly be at home.