Cineworld Glasgow, 09.09.11
John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard is the latest in a handful of Irish comedies in recent years, which utilise the considerable talents of Brendon Gleeson. McDonagh’s brother, Martin, (an executive producer here, along with Don Cheadle) directed the excellent hit In Bruges (2008) starring Colin Farrell, in a career best performance, and Gleeson as hitmen forced to flee to Belgium after a job goes wrong. In between the McDonagh brothers’ films, there was Ian Fitzgibbon’s Perrier’s Bounty (2009), where we had Gleeson again, now alongside Cillian Murphy, this time as a gangster. With The Guard, Gleeson switches sides to the other side of the law as a Garda officer in remote Connemara, whose simple life is interrupted by drug smugglers and Don Cheadle’s FBI officer.
The strength of all these films is the particular brand of Irish humour that Gleeson epitomises. World-weary, yet laid back, down playing the extreme situations in which he finds himself, and drawing humour from his straightforward outlook on the world. Of the three films, In Bruges is by far the best, with the unique location of Bruges a perfect platform to export the Irish flavour to, and Farrell providing an equal sparring partner for Gleeson. Perrier’s Bounty is a poor film, and commits the crime of wasting Gleeson’s performance. Instead of underplaying the comedy, it overplays and gets bogged down in contrived nonsense, like Jim Broadbent turning up with a condition that means he will die the next time he will fall asleep – nonsense. The Guard sits in between two in terms of quality, and the main attraction is Gleeson’s central performance, which carries much of the rest of the film.
The plot is slight, and frankly, incidental, as its main purpose is simply to provide a platform for Gleeson and Cheadle to provide a winning central buddy relationship. Gleeson plays Sergent Gerry Boyle, a Garda officer with dubious morals, who is content stealing drugs from corpses and using prostitutes, not to mention appearing to be a racist and bigot. His quiet job is upset by the discovery of a dead drug dealer, who it turns out was wanted by the FBI, represented by Cheadle as Agent Wendell Everett. The pair reluctantly pair up to catch the remaining drug dealers, led by Liam Cunningham’s Francis Sheehy, who has bribed all the other Garda officers in order to make a big drug deal.
The plotting is very simple, and acts only as a platform for the comedy, however, much of the humour stems from contrived situations that combined feel lazy. The appearance of Don Cheadle in remote Ireland is used effectively at first, as Boyle makes a string of inappropriate comments about Americans, and particularly black Americans, which are both funny, but also are used by Boyle to figure out his new partner. It’s a familiar comedy staple, the hero who initially appears stupid or ignorant, soon reveals themself as the smartest person in the room. Cheadle’s appearance works less well as the film goes on though. Is it really believable to think in the modern world, even in remote Ireland, that the locals would react with such surprise to see a black American man? Similarly, Mark Strong, as one of Sheehy’s crew, only seems to be present in order to be the butt of a string of jokes about the English, and it’s a rare film that fails to get a good performance from Strong, which emphasises the film’s weakness in utilising it’s impressive supporting cast and the weakness in some of the scripting.
Similarly to the wasted supporting cast, the slight running time also throws away situations that seem to lead nowhere or disappear. Boyle’s mother provides a couple of touching scenes as she suffers from cancer, and these are used to show Gerry’s human, caring side, but in the end gets thrown away and feels like a blatant piece of manipulation in order to get the audience on side. Similarly, Gerry’s use of prostitutes, and Sheehy’s attempt to use this to blackmail Gerry ends up going nowhere. It’s also worth noting that a dying mother and prostitutes are the only female parts of any substance, if you can call them that. Some of the more intriguing subplots, which could have provided a more heavyweight film are hinted at but not followed through – a gay Garda officer who has married a Croatian immigrant in order to giver her a visa and him a plausible home life in a Catholic community would make an intriguing film in itself, but here is mentioned but not followed through. Garda corruption is also noted, assumed, but not explored in any detail. There’s a brief appearance by an ex-IRA member, and the discovery of a terrorist arms stash, which mark a moment of topicality that the film has no interest in taking further.
All of which leaves rather a slight, light piece of entertainment, but nothing more. That feeling isn’t helped by obvious budget limitations. Is it realistic to think the FBI would send one or two agents to a massive drug bust rather than some kind of task force? At the film’s climax we are told of FBI forces gathering for the bust, but conveniently they are in the wrong place, so in the end all we have are Gleeson, Cheadle, Strong and Cunningham in a four man shoot out, that is rather underwhelming, although admittedly in keeping with the remote setting.
In the end it is the strength of Gleeson’s central role that makes The Guard worth watching, and which provides the best moments of comedy, but there’s not much more than that on offer. Still, as a light piece of fun it stands up. The critical acclaim the film has garnered over the last couple of months might say more about the standard of a lot of recent film comedy than it does about the quality of this film in particular.
Film Rating: 3 out of 5.