Written by Chris Morgan
The Guard, the 2011 debut film from John Michael McDonagh, is both fairly original and overly familiar. It is also apparently the most successful Irish movie of all-time, so, you know, there’s that. More than that, the movie was fairly well-received critically, even in the United States. Maybe it was reminding them of similar, better films? Or maybe they just enjoyed it quite a bit despite its handful of flaws. Honorable men can differ.
The movie stars Brendan Gleeson as Sergeant Jerry Boyle. He lives in pastoral Western Ireland and is part of some sort of police force. However, he also spends much of his free time, and even some of his work time, drinking, doing drugs, and whoring. He’s gruff and crass and is generally a grouchy dick, but, of course, the movie shows him caring about some people some of the time, pushing him more toward the “hero” part of the typical “anti-hero.” The movie strongly indicates that his life on patrol is fairly blase and tedious. Until, naturally, murder and drug trafficking suddenly enters the picture.
There’s also a bit of fish-out-of-water and personality-clash beats thrown in thanks to Don Cheadle showing up as FBI Agent Wendell Everett. Not only is Cheadle from the United States he is, as it happens, black, which, you know, makes him out of place in Ireland. The only other name worth noting in the cast is Mark Strong, who plays one of the traffickers. Gleeson, Cheadle, and Strong are all good actors, which are marks in favor of The Guard. The rest of the cast seems to be more local, including an Irish kid who is really not a good actor and who is given too much to do by being given anything to do at all.
The film is a comedy, but a dark one, with some gunplay and violence thrown in. It’s not gory, however, earning its R rating almost fully from the language used. While the posters for the movie, at least the American ones, made it seem like a Gleeson/Cheadle two-hander, Cheadle actually isn’t in the movie a ton. It’s mostly Gleeson’s show, and he is quite good, even when the film is conspiring against him. As this is a dark comedy starring Brendan Gleeson, it may remind you of In Bruges, from Martin McDonagh, the brother of John Michael McDonagh, although that comparison may not be too kind to The Guard, considering In Bruges is not good.
While it isn’t fair, or reasonable, to critique a movie solely through comparing it to others, The Guard did inspire a long thought process about a certain brand of film. The script is problematic. It wants to be quippy, and it wants its dialogue to be stylized, and it feels like so many that came in the wake of the Coen Brothers and Quentin Tarantino. The issue is that many of those movies aren’t up to snuff when it came to the screenplay. There is nothing wrong with trying to generate a unique, articulate script or what have you. Just because others have done it first doesn’t make scripts that follow pale imitations, and to disparage somebody for imitating Tarantino would be humorous for several reasons anyway.
The Guard has moments where it strains and the seams show. It wants to be stylized and wants to stick out. It wants dialogue that “pops” and makes people laugh even though it is also fairly serious and has murder and stuff. It wants to succeed in the vein of a Tarantino movie. It just doesn’t work a lot, maybe most, of the time. The bad guys, who just won’t stop it with the god damn quips, discuss philosophers. There is a discussion of a pop song while two characters drink milkshakes. Again, literally it feels like every line the antagonists say is a quip of some kind. At a point, it starts to feel excessive, and a bit odd. They are cold-blooded, ruthless killers, after all. Maybe not make things quite so light, if you want the movie to hit properly emotionally?
However, while sometimes the movie feels like it is trying too hard, and the dialogue gets clunky, other times it is actually funny, and sometimes there is good action and the stakes feel legitimate and there is even, in fact, some moments that work emotionally and dramatically. This again should probably be attributed more to Gleeson than anything the director/writer did. On the other hand, to McDonagh’s credit, it looks good, and there are some fine shots of sweeping vistas that give you the sense of the vast, rural area that Boyle patrols.
In the end, the best part turns out to be the closing credits, which are really well crafted and edited. No matter how good a credit sequence is, that can never be a good thing for a movie.
The Guard is fine and not without its charms. The script groans under the weight of the affectations McDonagh piles on it, but glimmers of promise and quality still manage to shine through. If you are a fan of Brendan Gleeson, its probably worth your time. If you were thinking of watching it for Cheadle, you may be disappointed by his lack of screentime.
The Guard doesn’t completely flame out like a film such as Things to Do In Denver When You’re Dead, a movie that makes you want to scream, “You are not Tarantino!” Despite feeling so familiar, in a bad way, some of the time, it’s also a dark comedy set in rural Ireland, which is unique, and there is enough done well to make The Guard a decent watch.