The Guard is a good film buried in a merely OK film. For every clever genre subversion there’s a redundant subplot. For every slice of surprising pitch black comedy there’s a contrasting burst of lazy broad rural humour. For every positive there’s a negative. However, it is a film that at the very least has a unique identity. That it’s a disappointingly inconsistent identity is the problem.
Brendan Gleeson plays Sergeant Gerry Boyle, a seemingly apathetic rural Garda in Connemara. We’re introduced to him as he lazily watches on as a group of drunk lads total their car, in what possibly serves as a strange parody of those cursed road safety ads. Boyle casually surveys the scene, and merely picks an acid tab out of one of the strewn corpses’ pocket and eats it. He’s an anti-role model, breaking the law as frequently as he enforces it. But he’s a good guy really: as we’re frequently reminded in two dull subplots.
Anyway, his comfortably casual existence is interrupted when there’s a homicide in his vicinity, the same day a new recruit from Dublin joins him. The apparently ‘occult’ motivation for the murder quickly links in with a half billion dollar drug run FBI Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle peculiarly slumming it in an Irish film) is in Galway to investigate. The two mismatched lawmen reluctantly join forces to track down the culprits.
It does sound like the stuff of countless generic cop thrillers, but that’s sort of the point. To writer/director John Michael McDonagh’s credit, he presents the tale with tongue deep in cheek. In many ways, it’s a spiritual successor to Poitin – another film that translated action film tropes to rural Ireland. McDonagh’s vision is more compelling overall though. When it works, it works well - there's even hints of classic Westerns in there (especially in the score). The film really comes into its own in the final ten minutes – a surreal, explosive action scene purposefully at odds with all that came before it. It’s delivered smartly and tightly directed. It’s in rare moments like this that the Guard comes across as a witty, clever parody of genre cinema.
Such moments, however, aren’t all that frequent. A strange semi-romantic subplot is clearly trying to emulate unnecessary love interests (played here by Katarina Cas). However, it is neither interesting nor funny enough to achieve this goal, and hence just clogs up screen time. Another overlong tangent focuses on Boyle’s relationship with his sick mother (Fionnula Flanagan – “that old lady from Lost” amongst many other roles) – it’s there to remind us that despite his peculiarities Boyle is fundamentally a decent guy. Alas, McDonagh takes too long to make that relatively simple point.
For the most part, The Guard maintains a surreal, offbeat tone throughout. It’s hard to put your finger on what exactly makes it so odd, but odd it is. The cinematography is sharp, even if the screening I was at suffered from dodgy framing throughout. It’s refreshingly unusual, and in fairness there are moments when the film surprises with lashings of dark comedy and clever digs at Irish culture. These sit alongside less successful gags though – other bits resort to the sort of broad ‘rural eccentricities’ humour we’ve seen many times before. It’s telling that beloved bumpkin Pat Shortt makes an appearance – his bumbling delivery at odds with the darker themes currently running underneath the surface. It’s a tone that gives the film a unique feel, but an inconsistent one. There are laughs to be had, but few belly laughs. In an attempt to please every kind of sense of humour, it seems the film is pandering to too many. There’s a weird kid obsessed with the IRA. There are two Waco jokes, one ruining the other. There are a lot of digs at Dublin and Limerick. There are even a few penis jokes!
Luckily, the whole meandering thing is anchored by an impressive performance from Gleeson. Boyle himself is a towering and enigmatic creation, and one certainly at odds with the bumbling oaf suggested by the trailer (albeit one whose traits are painted in unfortunately broad strokes at times). Indeed, the rest of the performers find it hard to match the manic energy Gleeson brings to the film. Cheadle does little than play the token American, but that’s all the role requires. Mark Strong feels wasted as he phones in a performance as a tough drug smuggler, but he’s backed up by an impressive David Wilmot as a jittering sociopath (not psychopath!) and a so-so Liam Cunningham playing Liam Cunningham.
The Guard is certainly an enjoyable diversion, one that bravely deviates from the norm in terms of delivery. However, it’s also a mess. It’s the kind of film that has country folk making ‘hilarious’ racial slurs in one scene, and existential undercurrents in the next (a ‘life is utterly meaningless’ thread runs throughout). It’s an interesting mesh of ideas and concepts, but one that only rarely feels like it fulfils the potential. It’s not the car crash that opens the film, nor is it an acid trip.