The Guard, written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, is a disappointment, but it happens to be one of the more invigorating disappointments of the past year. The logline of the film is rote: A quasi-cynical and quixotic local cop (the titular Garda) in Galway, Ireland is paired with a straight-laced FBI agent to stop some half-a-billion-dollar drug deal. To make matters just a bit worse, the humor is scorched-black and riddled with cultural touchstones, some more pop than others. The narrative structure is rigid as well, but unlike McDonagh’s first script, for Gregor Jordan’s laborious Ned Kelly, there’s a sense of something personal and unique hammering against the structure—a raging, riotous beast of a comedy locked inside a cage that McDonagh, helming his first feature, isn’t yet bold enough to unlatch.
Truthfully, most of this raging comes from the great Brendan Gleeson, who’s in top form as Gerry Boyle, the eponymous copper who can be seen dropping acid at the scene of a fatal car crash in the film’s opening moments. Gleeson exudes a fundamental and genuinely funny curiosity with existence, not to know what’s around the corner, but rather to question why he has to turn the corner. In less inventive hands, the role might have played too hardened and salty, too all-knowing, but as the film goes through the machinations of drug trafficking, police corruption, and cold-blooded murder, Gleeson invests enough of his own sardonic, gregarious force into each scene to compensate for the film’s more tiresome figures and plotlines.
Similar kudos should be leveled at Don Cheadle, as FBI agent Wendell Everett, who shows magnificent chemistry with Gleeson as they swap stories both personal and procedural. Wendell’s reactions to Boyle vault between charmed and annoyed, the latter felt strongest when Boyle playfully, knowingly evokes racial stereotypes to throw him off-kilter. Their interplay is at once a twitchy replication of buddy-cop movie dialogue and a self-aware parody of said dialogue, and the film attempts to pull that off to less successful degrees; the treatment and rat-a-tat repartee of the villains, ably played by Mark Strong, Liam Cunningham, and David Wilmot, is especially turgid in this respect.
The tone of the film strives for wisdom and humor but often comes off as frustrated; unlike Jesse Eisner’s inexplicably unheralded Hobo with a Shotgun, it lacks a crucial sense of ease both in the production and narrative mechanics. Indeed, as a writer and a director, McDonagh seems indecisive in his treatment of the film’s central “threat,” and Mark Strong’s clipped diatribes about feeling lethargic, unchallenged, and morose about his line of work, though delivered with the actor’s requisite finesse, feels more pompous and inconsequential than knowingly vacant and meaningless.
The entire entity of the villains sadly sounds conceived by someone who hates the movies The Guard openly parodies, rather than by someone who loves those films despite their flaws. This isn’t to say, however, that McDonagh doesn’t show great promise as a filmmaker. On the contrary, abetted by DP Larry Smith, his framing and use of color suggests an unhinged stylistic crossbreed of Aki Kaurismäki’s droll humanism and Guy Ritchie’s snappy fraternal hash. Would that McDonagh had focused on how the perversions of Boyle’s private life are at once indulged, repressed, and emboldened by the monotony of his procedural day job, McDonagh may have announced himself as a particularly interesting new voice in Irish cinema. In all honesty, the fact that the director finds room to fit in a loving reference to Jerzy Skolimowski’s stunning ethnographic horror charade The Shout makes it hard not to love him off the bat.
It’s ultimately McDonagh’s attempts to find meaning (like his villains) that derails all the good done by his visual panache and the stellar work of his cast. Juicy secondary roles inhabited by the wonderful Fionnula Flanagan (as Boyle’s mother), Katarina Cas (the Romanian widow of Boyle’s partner), and Dominique McElligott (as a playful prostitute) are overwhelmed by soul-searching of the most perfunctory, well-tread kind and by the film’s climactic shoot-out, the indecisiveness and aimlessness of McDonagh’s script has depleted all the fascination and urgency out of Gleeson’s character and his small-town community. Like his protagonist, who sneers at the mere mention of the (comparative) big-city shine of Dublin, McDonagh seems so exhilarated by deriding and poking fun at his chosen genre that he ultimately seems reticent to share the great, ludicrous entertainment that makes audiences flock to those movies.
Sony's 1080p transfer of The Guard is steady and overall solid, but isn't by any means a perfect job. Black levels are generally consistent, though I noticed signs of crush and greying at moments. The bolder colors (bright green and blue interiors, Boyle's red underwear, maroon chairs) come out looking great for the most part. The exterior shots can veer toward smeary at moments, but never so much as to ruin the viewing experience. Fine detail and textures boast tip-top clarity with very few exceptions. On the other hand, the audio is generally devoid of mentionable fault. There are a few instances of gunfire and other sound effects lacking oomph, but dialogue otherwise remains crisp and clearly out front with a good low-end mix of atmosphere, sound effects, and Calexico's gleefully cheeky Ennio Morricone odes. Solid overall, but nothing remarkable.
Sony has adorned The Guard with a commendable amount of extras, all of which follows in the film's generally bemused tone. John Michael McDonagh, Don Cheadle, and Brendan Gleeson not only come together for a very funny and suitably informative audio commentary, they offer further analysis of their characters and the story in a video Q&A session. The Second Death, McDonagh's short film that vaguely presages the narrative of The Guard, is worth a look and the making-of, though light on production specs, features Cheadle doing an almost-passable Christopher Walken impression. There's a treasure trove of deleted and extended scenes that are fun but hardly give notice of what "might have been" and the outtakes are funny. A theatrical trailer is also included.
The Guard's fine visual and auditory delights are given a better-than-average transfer and is boosted by a satisfying host of extras on Blu-ray.