tue 17/09/2019

The Guard | reviews, news & interviews

The Guard

The Guard

Brendan Gleeson shines in comic thriller from Connemara

Brendan Gleeson as Sgt Boyle, relaxing with two friends from Dublin

Directing and writing his first full-length feature, John Michael McDonagh fully exploits the wild and windswept landscapes of Connemara, and similarly extracts maximum value from his leading man, Brendan Gleeson. Perhaps he picked up tips from his brother Martin, who directed Gleeson in In Bruges. As Garda Sergeant Gerry Boyle, Gleeson finds himself on the trail of a trio of ruthless drug smugglers, about to land a colossal stash somewhere on the Irish west coast. This has attracted the attentions of FBI agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle).

The narrative is partly driven by the culture shock produced by Everett's incongruous arrival in the rural Irish outback, a bit like those recent scenes of President Obama quaffing Guinness in the Emerald Isle except transplanted to the set of Father Ted, and partly by the impudent, ambiguous, seemingly indolent figure of Boyle. We encounter his casual corruption right away, as he speeds to the scene of a fatal road accident and helps himself to the dead joyriders' stash of Ecstasy.

His idea of a great night out is an assignation with a couple of young hookers up from Dublin, whispered about out here in Connemara as if it's a Vegas-style Sin City. When Cheadle arrives to brief the local plod about the imminent arrival of half a billion dollars' worth of cocaine, Boyle goads him with casual racism, just for the hell of it ("Did you grow up in the projects?... I thought only black lads were drug dealers," etc). Challenged, he retorts disarmingly that, "I'm Irish Sir, it's part of my culture," (Gleeson with Don Cheadle, pictured below).

Bren Cheadle_SMALLYet he has hidden depths, which McDonagh takes care to render with a meandering, whimsical Irishness, often in a brogue so unapologetically thick that the issue of subtitles must surely have come up for discussion. The apparently louche and callous Boyle is a jazz connoisseur who's partial to a bit of Chet Baker, he expresses a fondness for Gogol, and he would have us believe that he was in the Irish swimming team at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. He loves his dear old mum (Fionnula Flanagan), but though she's a cancer sufferer with a few weeks to live, their rapport is salty, sardonic and completely unsentimental. And he has a brain which, if he'd opted for a less comfortable life, could have made him a criminal mastermind.

McDonagh has also equipped his drug gang with a droll gallery of quirks and tics, not least their penchant for debates about Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Bertrand Russell to while away the boredom as they drive around damp country lanes. McDonagh has overdone the Tarantino-ist misdirection technique here, but since his villains are played by Mark Strong, Liam Cunningham and David Wilmot they remain reliably watchable. Gleeson's big scene with Wilmot, who proposes to kill him but (of course) finds himself outsmarted by the beguiling big fella, is the film's strongest moment (Mark Strong as Clive Cornell, pictured below).

mark strong_SMALLIf this had been Hollywood, there would have been shoot-outs and car chases aplenty, but McDonagh rations himself to a judicious handful of scenes just brutal enough to make his point without erring into excess (a small budget is often a blessing in disguise). A couple of incidental characters help to enhance the sense of an eccentric, unfathomable Ireland. I especially liked the former IRA man (Pat Shortt) who, responding to Boyle's comment that he didn't think the IRA allowed gay members, pointed out that, "We needed them to infiltrate MI5."

Pick it apart, and The Guard is a fairly slight construction, but it's handled with enough wit, wryness and wisdom to make it an almost unalloyed delight. I do hope McDonagh's next project isn't Captain America Goes to the Planet of the Apes, though.

Watch the trailer for The Guard

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