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PARK CITY, Utah — (World Dramatic Competition) 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 very often hilarious, this twisted and exceptionally accomplished variation on the buddy-cop format is capped by a protean performance by Brendan Gleeson a defiantly iconoclastic Irish West Country policeman. Even though the narrative essentials and boisterous humor come through loud and clear, Yank audiences will have some trouble with the regional accents, making the addition of a few subtitles possibly advisable. But this cinematic equivalent of a shot of fine single malt will go down well with specialized audiences looking for something bracing and fresh.
Perhaps not unexpectedly coming from the screenwriter of the recent Ned Kelly, The Guard clearly has its roots in the Western, which is 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 non-realism are the bright hues–green, purple and so on–with which some interiors are backed and bathed, all 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 all is Garda Sergeant 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 (Rory Keenan, excellent) pursue the scant leads, yet another fresh face shows up, that of American FBI agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle), there to apprehend drug dealers thought to be planning a huge shipment of cocaine along the coast. Everett has barely begun his briefing for local authorities when Boyle interrupts him with the most outrageous racial insults (“I’m Irish. Racism is part of my culture,” the culprit dryly explains). Thus begins a wary partnership that forms the heart of the picture, even if it’s an imbalanced one that throws all the good lines and most of the drama to the Irishman.
Initially so 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 is ribald even with her. And he continues to confound Everett, who can never decide whether the man is truly brilliant or just an idiot. This may be the best screen role the busy Gleeson has ever had and he inhabits it fully, delivering McDonagh’s delicious dialogue with straight-faced gusto, filling in the desired character detail but still keeping him unpredictable to the end.
The script’s main flaw is that Everett, his foil, is so much less developed. Mostly, Cheadle’s character can do little more than react to Boyle and wonder what he might do next. The one episode he has to himself, in which he canvasses locals who refuse to talk to him, is comparatively weak.
The villains, who speak of Nietzche and Bertrand Russell while loitering about waiting for the illicit drop and pulling a shocking murder, are memorably etched by David Wilmot, Liam Cunningham and Mark Strong. All production values are vibrantly in line with the elevated level of the speech and performances.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Dramatic Competition)
Production: Reprisal Films, Element Pictures
Cast: Brendan Gleeson, Don Cheadle, Liam Cunningham, David Wilmot, Rory Keenan, Mark Strong, Fionnula Flanagan, Dominique McElligott, Sarah Greene, Katarina Cas
Director-screenwriter: John Michael McDonagh
Producers: Chris Clark, Flora Fernandez-Marengo, Ed Guiney, Andrew Lowe
Executive Producers: Martin McDonagh, Don Cheadle, Lenore Zeman, Tim Smith, Paul Brett, Ralph Kamp, David Nash
Director of photography Larry Smith
Production designer: John Paul Kelly
Costume designer: Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh
Editor: Chris Gill
Sales: Metropolis Films
No rating, 96 minutes
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