Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Guard Movie Review: Irish Garda Meets FBI

“I’m not sure if you’re really dumb or really smart.” So says the FBI man played by Don Cheadle to Gerry Boyle (Brendan Gleason), a sergeant in the Irish Garda stationed in Galway on the west coast of Ireland where the people have surly attitudes toward outsiders (particularly Dubliners) and sometimes they insist on speaking only Irish. Gleeson, a bulky bear of a man, is just the right actor to pull off the delicate balance between stupid and clever. His character might be equal parts ‘Mad-Eye’ Moody from the Harry Potter films and Martin Cahill, his character in The General.

The Guard, written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, has a darkly sinister comic sensibility akin to In Bruges, also starring Gleeson and written and directed by McDonagh’s brother Martin. The film opens with a car careering along the country roads of Galway, going just off camera as we see Gerry in his patrol car and then hear the screeching tires and crash of metal on the soundtrack. Gerry’s expression doesn’t change as he witnesses and then approaches the scene to find an overturned car and several bodies strewn about the road. He then rummages through a dead man’s pockets for the drugs he knows he’ll find – not as evidence but for personal recreational use. This scene plays as black comedy, setting the tone for the rest of the film, mainly because of the complete absence of blood and gore that should be present on the road.

Later, Gerry and his newly transferred (from Dublin) partner, McBride (Rory Keenan), investigate with a murder scene with some bizarre circumstances, employing some droll humor to keep it just this side of uncomfortable. It turns out the murder is connected to a band of highly wanted drug smugglers whose operations have extended into the United States, attracting the assistance of the FBI and agent Wendell Everett (Cheadle) into the mix and turning the film into an odd fish-out-of-water buddy cop movie.

In their initial meeting during an official briefing given by Wendell, Gerry unloads a litany of racist stereotypes – “I thought all drug smugglers were black. Or Mexican.” – which offends Wendell, not only as a black man, but also as an American who is accustomed to a higher level of decorum and people who follow procedures. This is one of the running gags, the idea that Americans are uptight about rules. Gleeson’s idiotic remarks, however, extend so far into the absurd that we have to wonder how much is true ignorance and how much is a button-pushing put on.

The Guard is another in a long line of crime films that owes a lot to Quentin Tarantino. There’s a lot of talking for its own sake, which adds flavor, and quite a bit of morbid humor. It’s all a little uneven, never really discovering, like In Bruges, what it wants to be. But there are occasional gemstones in the screenplay as when the cops receiving money in a payoff ask, “Is it all there?” These small town cops’ only experience with payola probably comes from movies where that question is always asked. But Clive Cornell (Mark Strong), the smuggler making the payment, is flabbergasted by such idiocy. Think about the logic of a criminal shortchanging the cops in the payoff.

Gleeson’s performance and the writing of his character are perhaps the principal reasons to see The Guard. Here is a guy who will nonchalantly take illicit drugs, dally around with prostitutes, and blithely tamper with evidence at a crime scene, but who will refuse a payoff, not for any upstanding moral reasons, but more because he just doesn’t want the other guys to win. Maybe also because he doesn’t like people, be they Garda from Dublin, FBI agents from America, or drug smugglers from London, coming to his town telling him what to do. He’s not all cold and uncaring. He takes kindly to the wife of a man who’s gone missing (after running afoul of the smugglers) and tries to do right by her, giving Gerry a bit of pathos.

Overall, you should bear in mind that the humor in The Guard is laced with local color. I spent a couple of summers working with young people from that part of Ireland (“The Wesht”, as they say) and my sense is that they’re quite proud of their heritage and comic sensibilities. There were likely quite a lot of jokes that will go way over the head of anyone not from Ireland, but then, that’s what helps set it apart from everything else. It doesn’t try to be all things to all people (even if the casting of Don Cheadle feels like a blatant attempt to secure U.S. distribution), it just exists as it is – a unique little film from a unique little place.

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