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Sundance Review: “The Guard”

“The Guard”
Jonathan Hession

A Western-inspired Irish buddy-cop film is by turns florid and ribald.

Clearly sharing the same artistic gene pool as his younger brother Martin, John Michael McDonagh makes a splashy directorial debut with The Guard.

Scabrous, profane, violent, verbally adroit and often hilarious, this twisted and exceptionally accomplished variation on the buddy-cop format is capped by a protean performance from Brendan Gleeson as a defiantly iconoclastic Irish West Country policeman. Although the narrative essentials and boisterous humor come through loud and clear, American audiences will have trouble with the regional accents, making the addition of a few subtitles advisable. But this cinematic equivalent of a shot of fine single-malt will go down well with specialized audiences looking for something bracing.

Perhaps not unexpectedly coming from the screenwriter of the recent Ned Kelly, Guard clearly has its roots in the Western, as underlined by McDonagh’s choice of a Mexican-flavored trumpet-and-guitar score by Calexico that immediately conveys a heightened Leone-Morricone vibe. Further promoting the sense of exaggerated nonrealism are the bright hues with which some interiors are backed and bathed, setting the stage for displays of florid rhetoric and elocution that are magnificently grandiose and obscene, even by high Irish standards.

At the center of it is Garda Sgt. Gerry Boyle (Gleeson), who looks his role in life if anyone ever did. Corpulent, truculent, belligerent and impossible to read, Boyle paradoxically patrols the comparatively quiet Connemara but jumps right in when the rare murder occurs on his turf. While Boyle and a newly arrived young partner from Dublin, McBride (an excellent Rory Keenan), pursue the scant leads, another fresh face shows up: FBI agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle), there to apprehend drug dealers thought to be planning a shipment of cocaine. He has barely begun his briefing when Boyle interrupts him with racial insults. Thus begins a wary partnership that forms the heart of the film, even if it is an imbalanced one that throws all the good lines to the Irishman. (The script’s main flaw is that Everett is so much less developed.)

Initially gruff and intentionally offensive, Boyle grows in fascination and dimension for the film’s full stretch. A single man, he wears posh robes at home and unabashedly indulges in prostitutes on his days off, notably in a wonderful interlude when two hotties arrive in abbreviated conductor’s gear on a train from Dublin. He also slips a flask to his ailing mum (a wonderful Fionnula Flanagan) at a nursing home. And he continues to confound Everett, who can never decide whether the man is truly brilliant or just an idiot. This might be the best screen role the busy Gleeson has had, and he inhabits it fully, delivering McDonagh’s delicious dialogue with gusto, filling in the desired character detail but keeping him unpredictable to the end.

World Dramatic Competition
Director-screenwriter: John Michael McDonagh
Cast: Brendan Gleeson, Don Cheadle
Producers: Chris Clark, Flora Fernandez-Marengo, Ed Guiney, Andrew Lowe
No rating, 96 minutes