At its core, McDonagh’s The Guard is hardly more than a romp on the old cops ‘n’ robbers jaunt. Brendan Gleeson plays Sergeant Gerry Boyle, a fifty something matter-of-factly vulgar and self-important Irish cop who would rather indulge in prostitutes and a pint than attend to any kind of duty as an officer. This isn’t to say that Boyle is a bad guy—he’s just working on his own unorthodox terms. Either way, when a multimillion-dollar drug heist finds its way to Boyle’s hometown and the FBI sends the straight-laced Agent Everett, played by Don Cheadle, over to assist, Boyle isn’t particularly amused. It becomes readily apparent that Everett—a by-the-book investigator—is the last person Boyle would want as his partner. But as the two get to know each other, Everett becomes gradually more bewildered by Boyle’s antics and sets the tone for Boyle to play around with the dark and underhanded humor that packs the only punch the film has.
Everett is poles apart from Boyle, and it seems like that’s the point. Boyle is devoid of tact, and he is earnest in his blatant racism. Again, it’s not like he loathes black people on principle. “I’m Irish, sir, racism is a part of me culture,” he shrugs. When Everett holds a debriefing session on the drug heist for the local law enforcement officers, Boyle earnestly asks why each of the suspects are white—“don’t only black guys sell drugs?” Shocked but willing to let it pass as a lapse in judgment, Everett—who himself is black—continues the session, but Boyle persists in asking again and again until another officer asks him to apologize. “Apologize for what? I’m just fuckin’ asking!” Boyle drops these kinds of outrageous statements like pennies in a slot machine throughout, and we’re not quite sure what he means by them, or if he realizes what he’s actually saying.
But there is something curious about Boyle’s bantering with Everett that implies a keen wit and sharp mind. We think to ourselves, “Can someone really be that clueless?” Or rather, “Is there a method to this cluelessness?” With Everett as a (practically too easy) foil for Boyle, we’re coaxed into loving the brusque yet earnest Boyle despite his racist and gluttonous foibles. As the two are driving together, Boyle offhandedly mentions to Everett that he visited Disney World a year ago by himself. Everett chuckles at Boyle: “You’re either really fucking dumb or really fucking smart.” And Boyle just smiles dimly in reply.
It’s clear that the film is much more interested in Gleeson as an actor than it is in its own project as a crime film. Boyle nonchalantly pillages some MDMA off a teenager on the site of a drunk-driving crash at the opening of the film: apparently, his interest in upholding some semblance of justice and righteousness as a police officer is nil. Cheadle confidently walks through the seemingly less-considered role of Everett with control—but the part itself really only exists as a counterpoint to Gleeson. Even the trio of criminals responsible for the drug heist is revealed early on in the film in a cursory manner. The premise of the film itself seems like a playground in which director McDonagh clashes Gleeson’s superb acting skills against a bevy of cultural norms and expectations to see what kinds of comedy-as-commentary erupt.
Gleeson as the crotch-scratching, beer-swilling cop lends himself well to this experimental endeavor and is, when it comes down to it, the only reason to see the film. The dialogue has its whip-smart moments (that are, however, frequently unintelligible thanks to the thick Irish accents) and the cinematography is conscientious and, at times, stunning—a notable ending scene places Boyle at the bottom right of the frame against the background of a vibrant ivy green wall and a massive painting of a sea ship—but what shines through is Gleeson’s command over Boyle’s manifest blasé attitude. Otherwise, the film itself is quite thin. It shows its cards, and then lets Gleeson rake in all the chips.
EMMA JANASKIE B’13 isn’t interested in being a cop either.