Brendan Gleeson has endured, feverishly, fantastic supporting roles in usually equally fantastic movies; as a wry and ageing Irish hitman with a heart in In Bruges and a gruff Irish mercenary in Gangs of New York to name but a few. One thing appears to be recurrent then – his brilliant portrayal of Irish characters and their penetrating social and emotional nuances. Here again in The Guard Gleeson plays another multifaceted legendary Irish character Sergeant Gerry Boyle, a garda with an insatiable appetite for unorthodoxy.
He’s a figure of authority fully prepared to, and often does, abuse his position. From relieving a barely cold car crash victim of his drugs to selling arms to a very camp IRA agent he’s endowed with an ambivalent attitude to ethics. In his insular rural hamlet he has absolute power and in his own words he’s “corrupted absolutely”. Here Gleeson is acting out a fantasy – hiring whores in policewomen fetish outfits – and allowing us to immerse ourselves in his enjoyment vicariously through a sublimely irresistible performance that elicits charm, wit, debauchery, hedonism and licentiousness in equal part.
Introduce Don Cheadle’s fabulously straight edge foil as FBI agent Wendell Everett brought in to expose a cocaine smuggling ring operating out of the Emerald Isle; and layer over nostalgic moments of Ennio Morricone’s iconic soundtrack and you have all the ingredients for a wonderfully uprooted nouveau American Western transplanted into drizzly Ireland.
The natural plot trajectory from here onwards – and the film even pokes fun at it its own antecedents – would be to follow Cheadle’s fish out of water comedy of errors across the countryside. Instead The Guard refreshingly eschews this narrative and keeps its focus on the singular garda and his subversive but astute idiosyncrasies and the subsequent evolving friendship between the two lawmen. The sometimes irascible, sometimes poignant chemistry between the two, as well as the inevitable hilarity of the cultural collision is what drives the movie forwards; balancing inappropriate humour with elements of genuine heart. Despite the calibre of both performances though, Cheadle certainly plays fiddle for Gleeson’s masterful performance as the Bad Sergeant; a masterclass in acting one way and thinking and doing another, second only to Cap’n Jack himself.
The supporting cast also shine. Most notably Mark Strong as a jaded, self-reflective crook hitting a mid-career crisis and reassessing the types of people he has to interact with. As well David Wilmot’s turn as the perceptive philosophical henchmen allows director John Michael McDonagh to heave in a bit more surreal to the broth. Both roles are tongue in cheek and both are wonderfully pitched for a sprinkling of satire. As is the gangster’s obsession with Americanisms in a movie that feels distinctly un-American. All on screen – apart from a desperately bemused Cheadle – are, perhaps not fully consciously, attempting to imitate some kind of deluded learnt behaviour originating from the likes of CSI. Indeed an exasperated Cheadle has to constantly disappoint locals by informing them he’s in fact not from the Behavioural Sciences Unit. McDonagh creates interesting and eccentric characters that are nothing more than a bunch of loveable, ridiculously amateur buffoons; but they’re failures are our winnings.
Some imaginative and well conceived set pieces and a thriller structure conceal a rich and warm character picture with humanity crackling all over the screen. It’s remarkable too how light hearted this feels despite its wrestling with, and clear allusions to, some very real issues within Irish culture. Yes the storyline is very much one direction, a simple and superficial excuse to create such magnificent characters on screen but exactly for that reason it doesn’t matter. As a vehicle for the deadpan wit and beautiful honesty of this character piece it’s more than adequate. And it’s ironic that everything on screen looks so amateur when it feels so masterful. Gleeson’s captivating anti-hero will have you at once in stitches, in shock and in love.
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