Review: The Guard

Director: John Michael McDonagh

Stars: Brendan Gleeson, Don Cheadle, Mark Strong

***originally written 12 September 2011***

The Guard doesn’t appear to have had a lot of publicity, or perhaps I’ve just not been in the right places to see it. But there doesn’t appear to have been much buzz about it. Mentioning to several people that I wanted to see it prompted at best questions as to what it was about, but mostly banal indifference. I can’t say that I blame them. Over a summer which has featured such ludicrous film names as Cowboys & Aliens, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes and, of course, Hobo With A Shotgun, the simple title The Guard doesn’t aspire to much.

Title aside, it seems a shame that The Guard hasn’t enjoyed more limelight, and it could easily have been more effectively marketed to pull in long runs in British cinemas. It’s a small-budgeted, big-hearted crowd pleaser with a delightfully wry sense of humour; this year’s (insert affable home-grown comedy movie title here).

But, what is it, right? This mystery film no bugger’s ever heard of?

The Guard is a quirky, ever-so-Irish play on the cop thriller. There are corrupt officers, drug barons, prostitutes, money exchanges, the F.B.I., assassinations… except all of these things are filtered through the sedate, parochial worldview of small-town Western Ireland, where everybody knows everybody’s name and business, and where courtship with a lamb is not totally unheard of. No, The Guard takes all of the conventions of the Hollywood cop movie and, when not gleefully poking fun at them it’s cannily subverting them. Here’s a police thriller where the ‘hero’ will happily take a day off because, damn it, he booked it.

The ‘hero’ in question, the titular Guard, is Gerry Boyle (played by Brendan Gleeson, visibly loving every minute of it). Boyle is a strange creation, as most of the characters here are. Defiantly determined to see the case through to the finish and meet out justice, whilst at the same time casually indifferent about his own indiscretions. So far, so Dirty Harry, right? Wrong. I don’t remember Harry Callaghan ever cheerfully admitting to going on holiday to Disney World by himself, or breezily telling a prostitute (that he has solicited) that he has a tiny penis. Boyle is a warm, incorrigible lead character. But never fully played just for laughs either. There are sly complexities here; the sadness in his last days with his mother, the uneasiness of an unexpected sequence in which he hands over a cache of guns to the IRA.

With Boyle as our untrustworthy guide, we are led through this tale of big-time drug deals taking place in small-time places. Don Cheadle is the fish-out-of-water American F.B.I. agent having to deal with the limitations of local cuisine, not to mention the general disappointment of the natives when he doesn’t conform to the expectations TV has reared them on. In fact, a lot of the jokes in The Guard (and happily, there are many) come at the expense of American cliché, or the way in which American culture has imprinted itself upon our own. The film at large is arguably one great big thumb to the nose of American cop movies.

But it is so in a very provincial way. This is a modest story told at a leisurely pace. Like Gerry Boyle it’s in no real hurry to get anywhere, and there is a lack of momentum throughout. It’s not a criticism per se, but even when the film moves into its final showdown, it still feels as though it’s merely trundling along pleasantly. It may be pointedly trying to shrug off the conventions of the genre, but at the same time The Guard never really feels dynamic in any way. It’s gentle nature and off-colour humour will appeal to the older generations, whilst young generations would, in a parallel universe where The Inbetweeners didn’t exist, be quoting the snappy, clever dialogue at the back of classrooms and study halls.

Maybe it doesn’t have mass market appeal. Who knows? I think the potential is there. If it is, it’s been squandered some. The Guard isn’t a landmark or masterpiece, but it’s a good, fun little movie that happily takes the piss and occasionally does something to surprise you. That’s not a bad combo. It won’t change your world, but it’ll brighten it for 90 minutes or so. If you can find it showing near you, you could do a lot worse right now.

6 of 10

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