Brendan Gleeson stars in a buddy-cop flick that subverts buddy-cop cliches
Published: August 17, 2011
Directed by John Michael McDonagh
A carload of wasted city kids drives too fast under all sorts of influences on a windy road in the Irish countryside. A bottle of booze passes between them while the driver starts to nod off. Loud music blasts while the shot jumps around in stylish quick cuts. The inevitable crash comes off screen in a tiny village, where Boyle, a hulking bear of a cop (Garda in the area’s Gaelic language), checks a body for a pulse, finds none, and proceeds to search around the kid’s pockets. Sure enough there’s a baggie of assorted chemicals in there, and Doyle tosses it away muttering something like, “Wouldn’t want your mum to know about this would you?” Actually, he tosses the bag minus one tab of LSD, which he casually plops on his tongue.
This is all before the title card, and we’ve all been programmed by movies well enough by now to understand immediately this variety of bad cop, the cop that lives the lives of the people he’s supposed to protect against. We learn fairly quickly that he also sleeps with prostitutes, drinks on the job, and steals, though apparently only from people not likely to care one way or another.
After the whiz-bang hyperkinetic Danny Boyle-y introduction, The Guard settles into something a bit more subdued, and Boyle himself seems to settle as a character into being more of a lunk than a villain. But that’s just it. Lunk, villain, hero—one of The Guard’s central points is that people are generally many things at once. Naturally, saying it out loud makes it sound rather more corny/moralistic than it is by miles, but people don’t generally resolve their actions within a certain set of neat guidelines (as they do in movies). And Boyle is a fantastically messy and often hilarious example of such. Much credit goes to actor Brendan Gleeson (recently of In Bruges) for rendering Boyle with more relief than even smarter comedy movies usually ask for.
So maybe the kids in the car don’t have very much to do with anything plot-wise, save for foreshadowing the big-city-problems-meet-little-seaside-town yarn that starts almost immediately with the assignment of a by-the-book Garda from Dublin to Boyle’s apparently otherwise solo duty as local law enforcement. Just as quickly there’s a murder, a stranger found shot at a local inn. But this is just the tip of something much larger: the imminent arrival of a half-billion dollars worth of cocaine by boat to a particularly lonely nearby pier. Said by-the-book cop is the next to go. His car’s found empty and Boyle suspects foul play.
An FBI agent named Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle) is tasked with intercepting the drug shipment and, along with a crew of big-city cops and higher-ups, arrives in town. He’s appropriately horrified by Boyle and the state of local law enforcement. Meanwhile Boyle pesters Everett with a barrage of questions/comments about, well, being black. And, in particular, being black in America, which would appear to be a fairly mythic existence from the perspective of rural Ireland. (“I’m Irish,” Boyle says. “Racism is part of my culture.”) Most of the film’s more typical and expected comedic moments happen with respect to this.
The Guard winds up to the gunfight you just know is going to happen from about halfway through. In fine buddy-cop movie form, it’s just Wendell and Boyle, the unlikely allies, against the bad guys (really more bad-guy caricatures, also in fine buddy-cop movie form). At the very end it’s just Wendell standing, and that’s not really a spoiler because what that means is still plenty ambiguous. The close is a kinda/sorta Usual Suspects twist, but it’s not so much of a twist, because everything about Boyle’s been laid out pretty well, and by the time he’s meeting with an MI5 agent maybe an hour into the movie about some whole other crime syndicate something-or-other, you should be wondering if maybe Wendell isn’t quite as much the big-time big-city cop in the relationship that he might’ve looked, and you shouldn’t be so quick to call a lunk a lunk. The net effect of The Guard is straight-up brilliant and purely out of left field: Writer/director John Michael McDonagh (brother of Martin, the big-time Irish playwright) is about as green as they come in movies of this scale. To pull off something that makes Hot Fuzz look like a low-level BBC sitcom is impressive indeed.
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