In 2008, a certain Irish film proved that the f-word can, in fact, be used almost exclusively as an adjective with achingly funny results. It also proved, much to the dismay of Ralph Fiennes, that swans are not everybody’s f***ing thing. If you hadn’t guessed, that film was Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges, and it was nothing short of a masterpiece of pitch-black comedy.
I remind you of this, some three years later, because Martin happens to have an older brother named John, who also happens to have made a black Irish comedy called The Guard, which like In Bruges, also happens to star Brendan Gleeson. It also happens to be quite good, even if it never manages to be truly great.
Gleeson plays Sgt. Gerry Boyle, an honest cop – he’ll freely admit to indulging in cocaine and hookers if you ask him — but by no means an honourable one. There’s hardly enough troublemakers in his remote Irish province of Connemara to require a policeman of honour, let alone a policeman at all. That changes, however, when the brains of an unidentified man are found splattered against a wall, leaving Boyle – who only ever deals with shooters of the alcoholic variety — well and truly out of his depth.
Enter straight-laced FBI agent Wendell Everett (a quietly assured Don Cheadle; Iron Man 2), who has been sent over to investigate a large supply of cocaine that is due to be shipped into Ireland by a gang of notorious, Nietzsche-quoting drug traffickers (Mark Strong, Liam Cunningham and David Wilmot). When Boyle identifies his murder victim as one of Everett’s smugglers, the two law enforcers – with their dramatically different approaches to enforcing law – grudgingly team up to catch the crooks, who in turn, grudgingly wait around town for their shipment to arrive.
On paper, The Guard is essentially a buddy-cop comedy in the all-too-familiar ilk of Lethal Weapon or The Other Guys. But in practice, or at least on the screen, it’s a little bit more distinctive. For one, the film is almost entirely, and deliberately, devoid of any urgency. Gleeson looks as though he’s perpetually in that semi-conscious state between getting out of bed and hopping in the shower, while McDonagh’s direction is so laid back, it’s a wonder he ever mustered up the energy to call “cut”. But that’s all part of the joke, you realise. This is Ireland, not Hollywood, and the only time the Irish move with any haste or purpose is if it’s happy hour at the pub. Everything else – including the apprehension of homicidal drug smugglers – can surely wait. And wait it surely does.
It’s here where much of the film’s (somewhat) dark sense of humour derives from: Cheadle’s fish-out-of-water FBI agent trying to actually do his job while Gleeson idly sips away at his Guinness. Still, more wit could have been sourced from this good cop/bad cop paring, which in never quite as hilarious it is during Gleeson and Cheadle’s brilliant first encounter. The Guard is certainly good for a laugh or two, but those that are claiming it to be funnier than In Bruges are claiming things that aren’t true.
Yet Gleeson, I will happily admit, is just as outstanding here as he was in that film, if not more so. The Dublin-born performer, who always embodies his roles form head to toe, quips with such dry sincerity, even racial slurs come out sounding endearing. Still, it was during the climactic Western-inspired shootout that I realised just how much I had come to care for Sgt. Boyle as a person, and not merely as a vessel for laughs. That’s why I’d argue that The Guard is more successful as a character-driven drama than as the infinitely quotable comedy I was hoping it would be.
So will it be everybody’s f***ing thing? No, but it’s still pretty f***ing good.