The Guard Review
Comparing films made by brothers is a risky business. After all, nobody recommends a Tony Scott movie on the basis of Ridley’s work. When it comes to The Guard, however, it’s difficult to avoid. This is the first feature from writer-director John Michael McDonagh, sibling of playwright Martin McDonagh. Martin first made an impact as filmmaker with his 2005 short film, Six Shooter. A quirky little black comedy more than happy to follow its own path, it starred Brendan Gleeson and ended up winning the Oscar for Best Short Film. A feature followed in the form of In Bruges, the much-loved hitman comedy with Gleeson (once again) and Colin Farrell occupying the lead roles. Gleeson appears once more in The Guard, but that isn’t where the similarities end. This is also a comedy, a crime drama, a character piece and it comes with a humour that manages to combine the dark, the off-centre and the silly. Indeed, had it in fact come from the pen of Martin McDonagh rather than John Michael’s, I doubt there would be too many raised eyebrows.
Gleeson plays the Guard of the title, another in a long line of less than conventional police officers. The opening scene pretty much sets the tone for the character: arriving on the scene of a fatal car accident, he frisks one of the passengers, discovers some drugs and drops acid. Shades of Bad Lieutenant perhaps, but Gleeson’s scene-end pay-off line - “What a beautiful fuckin’ day” - demonstrates a massive ironic undertow. The deadpan performance is what sells it and this is undoubtedly Gleeson’s movie. He’s been such a mainstay in British, Irish and American movies over the past couple of decades - everything from Spielberg’s A.I.: Artificial Intelligence to a pair of Harry Potter sequels - that it’s easy to forget his comic skill. A role such as The Guard’s, and more importantly a script such as The Guard’s, is the perfect vehicle to confirm this talent: it’s peppered with great lines and oddball anecdotes (such as his character’s past as a Olympic swimmer who came fourth in Seoul), but then it takes someone with Gleeson’s timing to get away with lines such as “Something came up, and I’m not talking about my cock” and draw the big laughs.
Though continually funny throughout, the deadpan nature of much of the humour and the presence of so many throwaway lines sees the comedy take almost a backseat. You can almost sense McDonagh shrugging as he films his script, unbothered as to whether audiences are simply laughing at the sillier elements or cottoning onto the cleverer ideas too. He knows it’s funny, but he never forces it. Surprisingly - especially as this is a debut feature - this attitude extends to much of the storytelling too. The Guard concerns itself with drug smuggling, a few deaths and a bit of blackmail. Early on a dead body shows up with a bullet hole in its skull, swiftly followed by the arrival of Don Cheadle’s FBI man. All the elements are in place for a proper thriller - a serious crime, law enforcement arriving from the States to emphasise just how serious - yet McDonagh doesn’t want to play it this way. Certainly, his film possesses enough thought and logic for there to be a satisfying development of the crime aspects and, more importantly, a satisfying pay-off. Though that doesn’t mean that McDonagh cannot be a little silly when he wants to be. Indeed, his main criminal trio (played by Liam Cunningham, Mark Strong and David Wilmot) are shown quoting Nietzsche and trading hilarious one-liners in an aquarium - and not because McDonagh has turned in some second-rate post-Tarantino script, but rather because he doesn’t particularly care for notions of realism or, for that matter, tension. It’s all part of the irreverent joke.
As a result The Guard is perhaps best seen as a cross between the Coen Brothers’ crime movies and Harold Pinter. It’s sense of absurdity falls somewhere between the two. There’s the knowingness of a Blood Simple or a Miller’s Crossing in there plus the heavily stylised - and occasionally menacing - form of dialogue Pinter would specialise in. Of course it’s ideal for the actors with the likes of Cunningham and Strong clearly relishing every line and reaction shot. (The confrontation between Gleeson and Cunningham in a throwback diner is wonderful: the latter’s threats dissipated by the former getting ‘brain freeze’ thanks to his concentrating more on his large ice cream than whatever Cunningham has to say.) It also allows for some nice little cameos including a particularly welcome appearance from Garage’s Pat Shortt as an IRA gun dealer.
On paper perhaps The Guard shouldn’t work. It has a cartoon-ish visual stylisation that could sound like an instant turn-off, likewise the use of a cod-Spaghetti Western soundtrack (although arguably its closer to the Shadows’ version of Apache than it is anything by Ennio Morricone). Perhaps even its being yet another quirky little comedy crime flick - and another from one of the McDonaghs at that - is a potential deal breaker. After all, we’ve had so many over the years, Irish, British or otherwise. And yet The Guard proves truly winning. McDonagh’s easy tone is very inviting, his script is continually laugh out loud material and the performances are in full service to it. The whole thing just proves to be incredibly infectious. To be honest we never really care about who killed who or why, or any other plot machinations for that matter, but that’s all besides the point. For its ninety-plus minutes The Guard is tremendously entertaining and, for me, that was more than enough.
The Guard is being released by StudioCanal on January the 16th in both DVD and Blu-ray editions. A copy of the latter was supplied for review purposes and this is what will be considered below. The disc used is dual-layered, utilised an AVC encode but surprisingly opts for a 1080i presentation. For the most part this doesn’t appear to have too much of an effect. The colours are strong and maintain the intended emphasis on the primary colours. Clarity and contrast are similarly excellent. Plus, as we should fully expect, the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio is in place. However, moments of heavy movement do prompt some motion judder. For the most part instances are rare, though Liam Cunningham’s first appearance - as he repeatedly paces back and forth across the width of the screen - is one such moment where the issue is hard to ignore. The soundtrack, available in both LPCM stereo and DTS-HD 5.1, comes across without problem and easily handles its dialogue-heavy nature. Optional English subtitles for the hard of hearing are also available.
The extras amount to a sizeable bunch and have a tendency to mirror The Guard’s laid back approach. The commentary by McDonagh, Gleeson and Cheadle is peppered with laughter, in-jokes and very little in the way of genuine insight. A few anecdotes here and there and a few genuinely funny moments (particular when discussing the scene with the prostitutes) mean that it never proves unsatisfactory, but it’s also a mostly take-it-or-leave-it affair - you’re not really missing out if you opt for the latter. A similar tone is present in the 19-minute ‘behind the scenes’ featurette. Here, however, the overall effect is rather refreshing: there’s little of the usual backslapping and EPK-level fluff, instead we get a brief insight into McDonagh’s relaxed set. At times it’s difficult to differentiate what we see from here from what we get in the three minutes’ worth of outtakes.
Also present are thirteen deleted and extended scenes totalling almost a half-hour. Some include the odd additional one-liner that would have been cut, I presume, for pacing reasons. There’s also a bit more of Fionnuala Flanagan as Gleeson’s mother. The other meaty extra is Donagh’s short film from 2000, The Second Death. At only eleven minutes this is more of a vignette than a piece of storytelling and shares a number of cast members with The Guard (Cunningham, Wilmot, Owen Sharpe). It’s set during a single night in an Irish pub and centres on Cunningham’s recently bereaved father. It’s also more serious than The Guard, though does possess a few quirky touches when it comes to characterisation and throwaway moments. Rounding off the package we also the theatrical trailer present.