The Guard

Sometimes a film is lifted so much by a dominant lead performance that the rest of the picture seems cowed in comparison. It seems unlikely, for instance, that anyone walked out of There Will Be Blood singing the praises of anyone other than Daniel Day-Lewis, or that Bad Lieutenant left people murmuring ‘Could have been good with a more striking actor in the central role than Nicolas Cage’. So it proves with John Michael McDonagh’s debut film, an Irish crime caper that is lifted from run-of-the-mill by two factors in particular, arguably Brendan Gleeson’s best performance to date and a witty, inventive script that riffs deliriously on the clichés of the genre.

Sgt Gerry Boyle (Gleeson) is a morass of contradictions. A drinker, drug user and habitué of prostitutes, he’s racist, loud-mouthed and lazy. In virtually any other film, his ‘journey’ would be about his redemption, especially when he’s paired with by-the-book FBI agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle, alas unblessed with funny lines) to investigate an import of drugs into the West of Ireland, where he makes his occasional patrols. Up against a hyper-literate trio of criminals (played, splendidly, by Liam Cunningham, Mark Strong and Dermot Leary), Boyle and Everett must put aside their common differences, etc etc.

It’s all somewhat reminiscent of McDonagh’s brother Martin’s (superior) In Bruges, specifically the same combination of offbeat detail, witty and highly quotable banter, unexpected moments of violence and a sensibility that owes more to theatre than to cinema. It scores, however, in Gleeson’s wonderfully rich performance, as a man to whom Wendell can say, despairingly, ‘I don’t know if you’re really smart or really dumb’, and the audience wonder that question for most of the film as well. Yet Gleeson makes Boyle a sympathetic and likeable character even at his most apparently crass, whether in his unsentimental but still rather touching relationship with his dying mother (Fionnula Flanagan) or in the grand finale, where the action beats of a shoot-out are vastly less interesting than Boyle’s behaviour, keeping the audience guessing until the end.


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