Towards the end of writer-director John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard (2011), there’s a scene where Sergeant Gerry Boyle (Brendan Gleeson) solemnly changes into his traditional “Garda” uniform before heading out to face-off with the vicious drug dealers who have cold-bloodedly killed his partner. As he drives down the country-road, eyes locked straight ahead, he’s saluted by a young boy: a hero being recognized by the very people that he’s sworn to protect, an image as timeless as the very concept of law enforcement. It’s a huge, soaring moment for one important reason: for the first time in years, Sergeant Boyle has decided to actually do his job and we know, without a doubt, that the end result will be simply glorious.
Sergeant Boyle is the titular “guard” of the title but he’s also The Guard in a larger sense: every frame of the film, every plot twist, blackly comic moment and dastardly deed in McDonagh’s stunning feature-debut is completely and totally dominated by the towering presence that is Gleeson’s Boyle, a character who manages to be gleefully corrupt, yet still stands as a beacon of truth amidst those who are, you know, a whole lot worse. In a career that’s stretched to nearly three decades, Gleeson has never been better or more explosive: take a seat, Harvey…this here is the REAL bad lieutenant and you won’t be able to take your eyes off him.
We first get introduced to Gerry as he steals drugs from the bodies of a bunch of teens who just flipped their speeding car. The police officer nonchalantly drops acid, says “What a lovely fucking day” and we get the title, so big that it fills the entire screen, squeezing Boyle into the margins. The intent, as mentioned above, is pretty obvious: Boyle will dominate the proceedings, no two ways about it. Boyle might not be an honest cop, but he’s sure a helluva lot smarter than the rest of his peers: his partner, McBride (Rory Keenan) is one small step away from being a complete idiot and their superior officer, Inspector Stanton (Gary Lydon), thinks that “liquidated” people are actually turned into liquid. In this environment, can anyone really blame Boyle for looking out for number one? It’s not so much that Boyle is a bad cop, or even a lazy one, per se: he’s just so burned out on all the bureaucratic bullshit that he’s completely tuned-out…no sense getting fired-up about fighting crime if everyone around you keeps dropping the ball, is there? Better to spend one’s time cavorting with prostitutes, playing video games in a pub during the middle of your shift and getting shit-faced whenever possible.
Boyle gets shaken from his comfortable stupor, however, when his small, Irish hamlet ends up with a certifiable murder-mystery: a body has been found, shot in the head and posed in a way that seems to indicate some sort of cult activity. Despite caring so little about the case that he practically yawns his way through the initial investigation, Boyle goes through the motions, since that’s what he’s expected to do. Things really get interesting, however, when FBI agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle) shows up in town, investigating some sort of major drug case that involves four seriously bad dudes: Francis (Liam Cunningham), McCormick (Declan Mannlen), O’Leary (David Wilmot) and Clive (Low Winter Sun’s Mark Strong).
During Everett’s debriefing, Boyle makes a complete ass of himself after stating that he thought “only black lads were drug dealers:” Everett calls him a “racist,’ to which Boyle snaps back that “racism is part of Ireland’s tradition.” Casually racist though he might be, Boyle also recognizes McCormick as their anonymous murder victim, which gives Everett his first actual break in the case. Faster than you can say “odd couple,” Boyle and Everett are soon working together, albeit as reluctantly as possible. “I can’t tell if you’re real motherfucking dumb or really motherfucking smart,” Everett notes, at one point, and it’s a pretty valid question: Boyle is constantly working so many angles that he’s either the dumbest guy in town or the smartest, depending on whose bad side he happens to be on. When Everett and Boyle end up in the crosshairs of Francis and his gang, however, Boyle’s going to need all of his wits to survive. When the drug dealers kill one of his own, however, regardless of what an idiot he was, Boyle has no choice: it’s time for this Garda to quit messing around and get to the business of putting away the bad guys.
The Guard is an exceptional film, no two ways about it: quite possibly one of the very best films of the last five years. So much of the film works to an almost supernatural degree that it readily brought to mind “instant classics” like Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998). The cinematography, by frequent Nicholas Winding Refn collaborator Larry Smith, is beautiful, making expert use of bright, primary colors and that lush, gorgeous Irish countryside. The score, by the Southwestern-based Calexico, is ridiculously rousing, all spaghetti-Western horns, steel guitar and action beats like one of Ennio Morricone’s classic scores. McDonagh’s script is airtight, full of deliciously snarky dialogue and some of the driest humor ever put to film. There’s something rather amazing about watching Everett and Boyle feint, parry and thrust around each other, testing for weak points and trying to push as many buttons as possible.
Let’s not forget about the cast, however. While Cheadle and Gleeson are the main focal points, The Guard is filled with interesting, three-dimensional characters, not least of which are the three drug dealing villains. Veteran character-actor Liam Cunningham is great as the exasperated leader of the group, while David Wilmot shares a thoroughly badass scene with Gleeson that features one of the film’s most joyous surprises. Nearly stealing away their shared moments, however, is Mark Strong’s Clive Cornell: morose, philosophical, depressed and given to metaphysical ponderings, Clive is an awesome creation, at once lethal and silly. In fact, it’s to McDonagh’s great credit that one of the film’s sneakiest ideas (that no one, including the drug dealers, are actually doing the jobs they want to do) comes across entirely through subtle character development and dialogue: no unnecessary hand-holding to be found here!
It pretty much goes without saying that Cheadle is excellent as the put-upon fish-out-of-water FBI agent but let’s go ahead and say it again, anyway: Cheadle is absolutely excellent as Everett. Long one of Hollywood’s most dependable actors, Cheadle is the kind of performer, like Ron Perlman, who can elevate any film, regardless of the amount of screen time he gets. Here, we get lots of Cheadle and I don’t that anyone would mind. His scenes with Gleeson are marvelous little jewels but the really revelatory moments come when Everett is forced to pound the small-town pavement solo: his interactions with the overly hostile, racist locals are some of the best scenes in the film, hands-down.
The unquestionable star of the show, however, the “reason for the season,” as it were, is the amazing, unstoppable Brendan Gleeson. Towering over everything like a ragged, Gaelic god, Gleeson doesn’t appear to be acting: he honestly seems to be channeling the very spirit of Gerry Boyle. Gleeson doesn’t make a single misstep in the film: whether sneaking his dying mother (an outstanding Fionnula Flanagen) into the pub for one last pint, blowing Everett’s mind by rising from the freezing ocean in a skin-tight wetsuit or telling each and every authority figure in the world to sit and spin, Boyle is never less than completely charismatic and magnetic. I dare you to tear your eyes from the epic climax where Boyle strides relentlessly through the middle of a firefight, a rosy-faced Angel of Death who knows that he’s screwed and yet refuses to admit the fact to anyone, much less himself. There are countless good reasons to watch The Guard but there’s one necessary reason: no one who considers themselves an aficionado of fine acting can afford to miss Gleeson’s performance…it really is that good.
As it stands, The Guard is another film that I feel pretty confident recommending to anyone under the sun: if you’re a fan of darkly humorous UK crime films, “cops gone bad” movies or “buddy action” flicks, this one’s definitely for you. Truth be told, I really can’t see anyone walking out of The Guard disappointed or underwhelmed: if you should find such a person, stay far away, my friends…it’s obvious that they can’t be trusted.