Irish and Bloody Lovin’ It
Published on July 28th, 2011 | by Cassady Dixon0
Running time: 96 Minutes
Rated: R for pleasantly pervasive language and violence galore
At the core of John Michael McDonagh’s darkly comic and criminal “The Guard” is an effortlessly fantastic performance by veteran actor Brendan Gleeson. Somehow imagine Billy Bob Thornton’s turn in “Bad Santa” crossed with John Wayne, and that’s the kind of hurricane Gleeson is able to unleash here. This is the type of role (and film) that almost never gets the recognition it deserves at big awards gatherings, which is a damn shame as Gleeson’s performance makes “The Guard” possibly one of the most thrilling films to land this year.
The film casually opens with small town police sergeant Gleeson happening upon the wrecked car of three drugged-out thugs, and helping himself to their supply of acid while he’s at it (why not?). Gleeson never loses that edge throughout, even as an international drug cartel moves through town and elicits the arrival of an FBI agent played by Don Cheadle. Though the story is ostensibly about how the authorities are going to bring down the narcotics gang, the real pleasure is simply watching Gleeson sift through the muck. As things become grimmer and more sordid, it’s marvelous to watch him find new ways to thumb his nose in the face of oblivion. A favorite bit of mine is when he mistakes a beautiful woman knocking on his door for his weekly call-girl romp. The screw-up makes for great, wicked comedy – I’ll leave it at that. Pleasingly the humor in “The Guard” is played straight, almost as an afterthought, which gives the characters a nice lived-in feeling to match the ruggedly beautiful Irish countryside landscapes.
Just about every performance is stellar here, too, even if they all bow at the lead of Gleeson. Cheadle is reserved but a thoroughly capable straight-man foil. Mark Strong is efficiently cold and calculating as the head of the cartel. Strong and his cronies are assassinating witnesses in one scene and debating the finer points of Nietzsche and Dylan Thomas in the next. Even what could, in lesser films, be considered throwaway characters, they shine here. We also meet an ex-IRA arms dealer who prances about in Wranglers and a Stetson cowboy hat, for instance. Notably, Fionnula Flanagan is show-stopping as Gleeson’s mother and practically the only positive feminine presence in his life. Their quiet conversations with each other go from the jovial to the nostalgic and, finally, in a pub accompanied by gorgeous folk music, to the ethereal.
Writer John Michael McDonagh makes his directorial debut, and visually he hits it out of the park. Ireland never looked more mysterious and haunting. Every pub and every cottage seems like a cozy refuge from the elements. The dialogue, though here and there a bit too expository, crackles with grit and harsh poetry. It makes perfect sense that McDonagh’s brother, the playwright Martin, was behind the similarly great “In Bruges,” also with Gleeson. Whereas in “Bad Santa” we expected to see the perpetually drunk criminal Billy Bob plays to behave obscenely, it takes us a bit of time to truly comprehend what we’re seeing with Gleeson’s behavior. The lawman is unapologetically racist, hypersexual and generally apathetic about the law (obeying or enforcing it). Yet somehow he gets to us. However unappealing his social charisma may be, he is still a man who does not back down from a threat. He has convictions buried underneath his penchant for whiskey and loose women. And he finally fights for what’s right, even after most of the town’s version of a power structure becomes more and more corrupt and compromised. He’s a true Rooster Cogburn, the great, lovable pariah from “True Grit.”
One other thing: it would have been nice to see Cheadle do more here. Perhaps it was a lucky break that McDonagh scored such a dynamic actor for what may have been written as a rather small part. While Cheadle is golden in all his scenes, his everyman dialogue feels stilted coming from an actor who we expect to be a walking fireworks display. Gleeson more than makes up for the lack of energy, mind you, but one can’t help but imagine the emotive Cheadle of “Boogie Nights” or “Traffic” here as well.
Truthfully, though, it feels disingenuous to carry on about any minor hiccups in McDonagh’s film. “The Guard” is a forceful, hilarious shot in the arm for international and Irish cinema. This is the kind of movie Guy Ritchie stuff feels like it should be. The real deal: rough, humanistic and full of local color. Don’t miss it.