by George Sax
Foul Deeds and Sly Digs
Brendan Gleeson and Don Cheadle may not be many people’s idea of a comic cop-film teaming, and the movie that pairs them, The Guard, doesn’t seem quite sure about this either. The initial promise of an oddball twosome isn’t fully kept.
Cheadle’s African-American FBI agent, Wendell Everett, exuding organized dedication, first encounters Sgt. Gerry Boyle (Gleeson) of the Irish Garda (hence, The Guard) at a briefing on an international drug-smuggling operation he’s conducting in Ireland. He’s interrupted by the Irish cop’s startling request that Wendell confirm the idea that drug dealers are all black or Hispanic.
Gerry, a small-town Irish constable, dominates the movie. He’s a big, deceptively blowsy, irreverent guy, impudently needling colleagues and higher-ups. He’s also razor sharp and harbors a weary humanness. And he gets away with it, primarily because almost everyone else is slower or pompously compromised.
There’s a plot about that international drug ring using Gerry’s little seaside burg as a transshipment point, but it doesn’t make airtight sense and The Guard doesn’t seem to be consistently interested in it itself. This storyline moves along with a distinct lack of urgency. Writer-director John Michael McDonagh (brother of playwright Martin McDonagh, who vast Gleeson in his own film debut In Bruges) appears more focused on keeping his tongue in his cheek and maintaining a mordant cool than in building tension, comedically or melodramatically. The drug smugglers, for example, an irritably oversensitive little group, spend time between criminal planning and murderous spasms of violence, arguing over matters like the alleged Welsh birth of Bertrand Russell.
This attitude, and the movie’s loose structure, give Gleeson a platform for his low-key but expertly inflected performance. The movie and his Gerry is a shrewd skeptic and deadpan ball breaker. When Cheadle’s Wendell tells Gerry he can’t decide if he’s insensitively stupid or cunning, Gerry merely looks satisfied. We, of course, are in on the joke. Gerry doesn’t want to suffer overbearing fools, but he’s willing to abide his superiors’ incompetence and dubious ethics if he’s allowed to tend to his job in his own way. (This, we learn very early, includes concealing case evidence to spare a dead youth’s family further distress.) Eventually, it becomes untenable for him to keep to this posture of cynical tolerance.
Gerry himself is burdened with a mortally ill mother (Fionnula Flanagan in a touchingly skilled turn). Gerry’s relationship with this parent is nicely handled, although it isn’t really integrated into the film’s tenor. It’s not the only barely assimilated element. Gerry’s business with Wendell never materializes at a buddy movie level; it’s mostly another subordinate plot line, and Cheadle mostly plays second banana to Gleeson. (This can’t be inadvertent because Cheadle is one of The Guard’s producers.)
McDonagh hasn’t really managed to successfully sustain his combination of subversive, dark-tinged comedy, sentimental sadness and outbreaks of violence, but Gleeson’s finely calibrated performance and McDonagh’s pointed humor more or less hold things together. His direction is usually reserved and watchful, except for the opening sequence, and a strangely flamboyant 360-degree camera pivot around a bleak country road setting, performed for no obvious reason.
The Guard isn’t a slick and high intensity work, and its pacing can seem a little uncertain, but it packs more wryly engaging entertainment into its 96 minutes than most of the summer’s releases have had.
Watch the trailer for The Guard
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