[The Guard opens in limited release in the US today, so we're bumping our LA Film Festival Review. It's definitely one of the best comedies I've seen so far this year.]
If you’ve seen the dark-comedy-with-a-streak-of-philosophy In Bruges, the name “McDonagh” may not be wholly unfamiliar to you, as that film brought Irish playwright and director Martin McDonagh to international attention. The Guard is directed by his brother and frequent collaborator John Michael McDonagh, and besides the obvious use of wonderful actor Brendan Gleeson in both films, they also share some of the same sense of humor mixed with morbidity, though The Guard ratchets up the comedy a bunch, becoming one of the laugh-out-loud funniest movies I’ve seen all year.
Gleeson plays a Galway policeman who really doesn’t give a crap about his job, and spends most of his time on the first case we see ridiculing his young new partner, both for his earnestness and because he’s from Dublin. No color or national origin is safe from non-politically-correct jokes in this film, not even the Galway cops themselves. When an FBI agent (Don Cheadle) shows up investigating a drug trafficking case, it becomes clear that Gleeson’s murder case is connected, and the two start working together, despite their initially strained relations. It would be easy to expect the film to be about race, given the setup in the trailer and the premise of a bigoted Irish cop working with an African-American, but this film cannot be so easily pigeon-holed, and ends up being far more of a character study (albeit an uproariously funny one) of Gleeson’s character.
Gleeson’s character knows that he’s saying offensive things, even though he plays it off as ignorance (“I thought black people couldn’t ski. Or is that swimming?”), but he continues to do it because he’s bored stiff with his existence and he just wants something to happen, even if that something is someone getting royally pissed off at him. He isn’t ever really mean about it, and besides, it goes both ways, and involves everyone in the film. It’s so blatant it becomes a running gag. I’m sure some will find it actually offensive, but I think that’s missing the point, which is more that we all have cultural quirks that are indeed humorous, and do sometimes indeed cause friction, but they don’t have to preclude mutual respect, which Gleeson and Cheadle certainly find even as they continue ribbing each other, and they are never the whole story, as both characters discover as they constantly learn surprising things that bust up their stereotypes.
Even that paragraph above, though, gives too much weight to the cultural jokes compared with their importance in the film, though. The actual crime plot is carried off quite well, especially thanks to Mark Strong as one of the drug traffickers (he’s from London, and yes, he catches ribbing from the Irish traffickers as well). He’s so good in every scene that you almost don’t want to go back to Gleeson sometimes, and that’s saying something because Gleeson is a powerhouse in this film. When it all finally comes to a head it’s a shootout, just like the spaghetti western movies that the film’s score evokes. I thought the music in the trailer was just part of a quirky marketing campaign, but no, that Ennio Morricone-esque score is right over the opening credits, giving the film yet another layer of fun and interest, as it suggests that Gleeson pictures himself as a spaghetti western hero, cocky but with a deeper layer of dissatisfaction and restlessness.
Gleeson’s character could come across as a real jackass, but he doesn’t – he’s a deeply flawed and mistake-making human being, but ultimately one with a really good heart, as evidenced by the not-quite-throwaway brief subplot with his dying mother. It seems out of place at first, but it counterbalances really nicely the brash and cocksure facade he wears almost the whole rest of the film. Cheadle also does a fine job in the film, but his role is much less central than Gleeson’s – he’s almost there as a straight man, to play the jokes off of and provide an alternate perspective when it comes right down to it. It’s really Gleeson’s show all the way, and he’s perfect.
Between The Trip and The Guard, we have two options for comedies from across the sea, one dry and improvised, the other broad and scripted, but both with far more real laughs and emotional depth than I find in most American summer comedies. I rated both these films the same star rating; I did enjoy The Guard more, and more consistently.
Director: John Michael McDonagh
Screenplay: John Michael McDonagh
Producers: Chris Clark, Flora Fernandez Marengo, Ed Guiney, Andrew Lowe
Starring: Brendan Gleeson, Don Cheadle, Liam Cunningham, David Wilmot, Rory Keenan, Mark Strong, Fionnula Flanagan, Dominique McElligott, Sarah Greene, Katarina Cas
Running Time: 96 min
Country/Language: Ireland, English
US Theatrical Release Date: July 29, Sony Pictures Classics