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Film Review: The Guard (2011)

The Guard (2011; Directed by John Michael McDonagh)

Note: the kid did not steal sweets. You'll be surprised.

It was an unpleasant surprise that I wasn’t more entertained or impressed by The Guard. By all initial appearances an anarchic and subversive crime comedy with shite-piles of local Irish colour and a film-owning tour-de-force performance from my favourite actor, Brendan Gleeson, this is not nearly the movie it sets out to be, ought to be, and was widely received as (highest-grossing Irish indie film ever, it is). It powers ahead with devil-may-care sparkle for a handful of moments, but then squanders its momentum with conventional forays into stock character cliches and predictable subplots for twice as long.

The writer/director credit holds some clues to the film’s tone of mild disappointments. John Michael McDonagh is the (evidently less talented) brother of Martin McDonagh, acclaimed iconoclastic Irish playwright and the writer/director of the fantastic international hit In Bruges, which took the foul-mouthed wit of the criminal classes and plunked it in the timeless medieval streets of the charming Belgian tourist city. Both The Guard and In Bruges feature shootouts, sex, and druggy shenanigans in idyllic locales, as well as loads of offensive humour and Brendan Gleeson being generally awesome (although he’s outshone by Colin Farrell in the latter).

But despite the similarities, the comparison does no favours to John Michael and his less-balanced film. Or, perhaps, The Guard is more balanced, and that’s the problem. It deals out its off-colour hilarity in controlled doses between dramatic beats, sympathetic character development, and narrative advancement, where In Bruges blurred it all together, and sprung its chaotic sensibility on us with little warning and often with a bit of misdirection. There is some nicely Irish foul-tempered jokery here (“I’m Irish, racism is part of my culture!”), but nothing ultimately measuring up to the other McDonagh’s inspired tangential bawdry (I’m thinking particularly of a certain outlandishly offensive Farrell line about an overweight, mentally-deficient African-American girl on a teeter-totter, for one).

These coppers dress far too nicely, no?

It perhaps isn’t fair to damn The Guard with contrasts to a better film simply due to some shared themes and the fraternal association of the films’ auteurs (although Martin McDonagh did exec produce his bro’s less entertaining flick, too). This film has its high points as well, from the dedicated West Irishness of its settings to its undeniably sharp wit. Though Don Cheadle can be plenty of fun camping it up (his Basher was always one of the best things about the Ocean’s movies), he does nicely as Gleeson’s by-the-book FBI agent foil. Mark Strong radiates danger and levity equally as the most notable of a philosophical trio of drug smugglers, and Pat Shortt has an amusing scene as a gone-to-seed IRA member in a Texas tuxedo.

But when the movie occasionally sings, it’s Gleeson who is the choirmaster. McDonagh’s script does try too hard with its star’s character, Sergeant Jerry Boyle, simultaneously making him sympathetic with fluffy subplots with his dying mother (Fionnula Flanagan) and a police colleague’s grieving sort-of widow (Katarina Cas) and playing up his rogue side with his slick bachelor pad, rampant drinking and recreational drug use, and patronizing of escorts. But Gleeson delights in the incongruity of casting a puffy, jocular Irishman in the smooth hero cop role, thumbing his nose at everyone even when he doesn’t have to and relishing the bacchanalian appeal of lines like “I am all out of jizzum!” He redeems the winking knowingness of it all with the sheer force of his personality. Gleeson is bigger than The Guard and drags the film over its rough spots into a sanctuary of rough aesthetic respectability, and a good job it is, too. Pity that the overall product wasn’t stronger, or Gleeson could have made it something fairly special.

Categories: Film, Reviews
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  1. June 6, 2013 at 5:41 am
  2. September 27, 2015 at 10:13 am

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