You know what’s nice? When a well known and much lauded actor realises that he or she isn’t too big to appear in smaller films. Don Cheadle is a very well known actor these days he’s one of those guys that seems to have no ego. He’s been in award winning films like Hotel Rwanda and summer blockbuster fun like Iron Man 2. Here The Don…. nah that won’t stick… appears in The Guard alongside one of Ireland’s finest, Brendan Gleeson. The Guard is best/lazily described as Lethal Weapon meets Father Ted. Or maybe a darker Irish version of Hot Fuzz. Click the link for my review!
Brendan Gleeson plays Sergeant Gerry Boyle, a semi corrupt, semi racist, fully a lot more complex than he first appears member of the Irish Garda. He likes to pop the odd pill, thinks only Black people deal drugs and isn’t too keen on stopping the international drug smuggling ring that’s pulled up on his shore. When FBI agent Wendell Everett arrives to attempt to catch these smugglers he finds himself teaming with Boyle much to his chagrin. It’s a basic chalk and cheese dynamic that works very well. Boyle says something offensive to Everett, Everett reacts strongly, Boyle shocks him by displaying a keen intellect. As mentioned, Boyle isn’t the simple ignorant racist he first appears to be. He’s a very multi layered character who takes the course of the film to fully understand. There’s an underlying level of duty and loyalty in him that at some point has been lost behind his exterior persona. The layers get chipped away over the course of the film, as you’d expect, but never once does this character arc feel forced. It happens slowly and with a considered, subtle, pace.
A lot of Everett’s character arc is spent on him trying to figure out the world he’s stumbled into but this isn’t presented as a fish out of water comedy. Maybe a cut that was presented like that would have helped this film with a little more mainstream appeal but it would have weakened our introduction to Boyle and the film as a whole.
The films humour is frequently dark and dry. A lot of it comes from Boyle’s old fashioned views on the world. As he says the first time he meets Everett “I’m Irish, racism is part of my culture”. Whilst not a statement that is true of all Irish people it is part of Gerry boles view of his nationality. He comes from a time when TV shows like Mind Your Language and Till Death Us Do Part were common mainstream entertainment. Entertainment that these days would make a lot of people feel uncomfortable to laugh at and would certainly take a ballsy show to repeat today.
Director John Michael McDonagh is ballsy enough to try this though. Like his brother Martin, director of In Bruges and Six Shooter, he has a morbid and dark sense of humour but a traditional value for storytelling and scene setting. The film effectively plays out like a slower paced American crime thriller but with all the razzmatazz of a US production removed. One scene for example has Boyle and Everett checking a Pub security camera minus the use of high tech equipment and flashy computer programs that magically take a low res blurry image and make it HD in seconds. Even the inevitable showdown at the end is down without too much flair, but the feel of danger is very much present.
For a British viewer this film is a smorgasbord of British and Irish acting talent. Overseas viewers will likely only recognise Brendan Gleeson and Mark Strong, who has quite the interesting haircut in the first image we see of him. Mark plays one of the three drug smugglers and proves to be the most interesting of the villains. It’s not that he is a character layered with emotional depth or anything. He’s just a refreshing take on the usual hoodlum. Rather than being dumb muscle he, and is cohorts, are all presented as well read lovers of philosophy and are very much aware of their roles. Strong’s character, Clive Cornell, is a Londoner who only signed on to be a drug smuggler. He won’t, for example, do any of the heavy lifting work. By which he means lifting dead bodies. He’s no nonsense, doesn’t enjoy paying off crooked cops because of how much of a pain they are and he’s quite fond of sharks. It’s refreshing to see a set of villains presented in a more complex manner without them breaking from their required roles in the group. Idiosyncratic they may be but pointlessly so they are not.
The Guard may not be a film for everyone. Some people will likely find its humour a little too black at times. I’d imagine US audiences will find the fact that Don Cheadle’s character isn’t the film’s primary focus a little tough to take due to him being the most recognisable face in the film for a lot of them. The Guard is a very well written, well directed and beautifully darkly humoured piece of Irish cinema. Apparently it’s the most successful independent Irish film since The Wind that Shakes the Barley, no mean feat really considering that film is near required viewing status. I’d say that if you’re a fan of films such as In Bruges, Bad Santa or say Harold & Maude then this films sense of humour will be right up your street. If not, watch it anyway. Only total morons get offended easily anyway.