A group of kids in a red sports car goes speeding down County Galway’s windy seaside roads. They blow past Sgt. Gerry Boyle, sitting in his cruiser. It isn’t clear whether or not Boyle is out trapping for speeders or just looking for a little shut-eye on a back-county road.
Boyle does not pursue the boys. Within minutes, he receives a call, drives out, and finds their car flipped, bodies strewn, everyone dead.
The type of film The Guard becomes depends on this moment. If Boyle (played with a basset hound’s languor by the terrific Brendan Gleeson) were to be affected emotionally by this, it may have become some sort of crusader cop film — though crusading against, what, I’m not sure. If Boyle were to display no emotion at all, no remorse at letting the car speed past, no concern for the boys’ mothers, then we would perhaps have some kind of amoral Bad Lieutenant on our hands.
Instead, Boyle tosses the car for evidence, finds a Ziploc of various narcotics, pulls out a blotter of acid (complete with smiley face) and takes a hit.
Then the title card runs.
It’s an introductory character study that sets the tone for the film, which is less about detective work — although there’s plenty of that — than about writer/director John Michael McDonagh using a singular Irish Guard and a revolving cast of stereotypes (stuffy FBI agent, Welsh sociopath, London heavy, etc.) to create a comedy of (bad) manners about the boxes we put people in.
To be clear, most of the characters in the film are just dying to be put in boxes. They’re jumping in feet-first. Especially Don Cheadle, who plays an FBI drug enforcement agent sent to County Galway as part of a task force searching the coast for the port-of-call of a group of cocaine runners.
Cheadle plays the straightest straight man I’ve seen in a long time. The character is absolutely joyless, but you can tell the actor is having some fun with it. The odd thing: His Wendell Everett is a Wisconsonite, but Cheadle plays him with a Southern accent, which is just confusing as hell.
After a couple days of pondering it, I think McDonagh might be having a go at British stereotypes of black Americans. Maybe not, though.
There are levels of cultural reference in this film that may not track unless you’ve lived on the British Isles, and more still that you won’t get unless you’ve spent time in West Ireland. There’s more than enough here, though, for a (moderately Anglophilic) Yank to enjoy.
Like his brother, Martin McDonagh — who wrote and directed the riotously funny In Bruges — John Michael revels in his Irishness. When Sgt. Boyle, in a briefing, says, “I’m Irish. Racism is part of my culture,” we take him as a stand-in for the writer.
I don’t, for the record, think either McDonagh is racist. I think both are interested in tweaking the perceptions we make at the societal level. They play with our discomfort with and our acceptance of cultural bias. They are better and more adept social critics than anyone has (yet) given them credit for.
In The Guard, as with In Bruges, popular (and often destructive) stereotypes become a playground for farce and absurdist humor. The comedy here is much more subtle than In Bruges, though, relying more on conversational cues and turns of phrase than gunplay and dwarf jokes.
There’s a lot more to this film — I’ve spent my entire review talking about the first two minutes — including some actual detective work (and also some actual whoring, an actual dying mother). At the heart of it all, though, is Gleeson’s Boyle, a West Irish rube who may be the smartest cop in Ireland. But probably not.