The Guard Review

I think it’s fair enough to say that the surprising commercial success of In Bruges after the Oscar-winning acclaim of his first short film Six Shooter means that there’s a fair bit of anticipation for the new film from director and writer Martin McDonagh. Although I laboured under the misapprehension (I have to admit) right up until the end credits – it’s only there that the director’s name is listed – that The Guard was that new film, it’s to the credit of the film that there was nothing here that suggested it wasn’t written and directed by Martin McDonagh, but rather it’s the first feature from his brother John Michael McDonagh (Martin acting as Executive Producer here).

I say that it’s to its credit that it could be mistaken for a Martin McDonagh film, but obviously that’s a value judgement, since having your work being mistaken for being the work of someone else isn’t generally considered to be a good thing. There is however no getting away from the fact that The Guard bears a strong resemblance to and has many of the same characteristics of McDonagh-frère’s Paddy-Irish fish-out-of-water in Tarantino-style smart-talking, ultra-violent comedy-crime films. And I mean that as a compliment, not a put-down. There’s certainly mileage in the comedy angle of the innocent bumpkin caught up in the world of international crime and ignorant of the conventions of the genre and just how out-of-place they are within this world. In Bruges certainly proved that, aware of the conventions and the stereotypes certainly, but also being smart enough to play around with them, its sharp (and amusingly foul-mouthed) script delivering a well-paced stylish crime caper while also allowing the characters room to show a vulnerable side that the audience could identify with and sympathise with to some extent.

In that respect, since all of the above criteria apply, The Guard is a dead-ringer for In Bruges, with that one notable exception that I deem creditworthy that I’ll come to later. There’s an ignorant Irish policeman, Sergeant Gerry Boyle (and he’s played by Brendan Gleeson to boot!), out in a remote village on the west coast of Ireland. He does things his own way and at his own pace, which generally matches the easy-going, unchanging everyday pace of life in Connemara, Co. Galway – so remote from everyday life that many of its inhabitants speak only Gaelic (or so they would have you believe) – the big man usually enjoying his day-off with a visit from a couple of prostitutes up from the big city, Dublin. There’s nothing going on in this part of the world that’s going to change the habits of a lifetime for Boyle, certainly not an unexpected murder case that prompts the arrival of an FBI officer from America on the trail of some international drug dealers. Not even the fact that agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle) is black is going to stop Boyle from making mildly racist or at least stereotypical comments about black people and drug-dealing.

That much is all a pretty obvious vehicle for humour, contrasting the laid-back Irish way of doing handling a police investigation with the rather more savvy, worldly-wise, fancy-talking, politically correct and racially sensitive ways of the international crime investigation, whose dialogue and syntax would be widely-enough known from the many US crime serials that have made their way over even to the remotest parts of Ireland over the last 40 years. The snappy dialogue and the humour derived form this situation then might be somewhat predictable, putting this modern dialogue from another culture into the backward ways of a bumpkin police officer (not unlike the way Father Ted would refer to Snoopy Dogg-Doggy and Father Dougal Maguire’s taste for gangsta-rap on Craggy Island), but The Guard, and particularly as it is played by Brendan Gleeson proves to be rather more clever than that. It’s not just that Boyle turns out to be smarter than you realise – which in itself is a predictable convention – but rather that he never gives away the fact that he is cleverer than the big FBI boys with all their resources and intelligence, and he never gives away either whether he’s really as politically insensitive as he appears or whether he’s just taking the hand out of the self-conscious seriousness of it all.

If the other characters in The Guard aren’t as well-defined and aren’t given such good material to work with – Don Cheadle’s FBI agent is pretty much a stock character, and introducing the drug smuggling group having a Tarantino-esque discussion about their favourite philosophers is very predictable (Liam Cunningham makes more out of his part, playing it with relish, but the usually fine Mark Strong is underused and underplays in his typical baddie role) – it’s this simple ambiguity that makes all the difference here, getting right to the heart of a rather more complex figure, and one that is certainly typical of the laid-back, unfathomable sense of humour that is characteristic to that region of Ireland. Even by the end, you still don’t know if you’ve got a sense of who Sergeant Gerry Boyle is, but you can be sure it reflects the kind of characters you are likely to meet in real life in places like this.

And that’s the aspect of The Guard that I find worthy of credit, and it’s the one aspect of the film that admittedly confused me while I was under the mistaken belief that I was watching a new Martin McDonagh movie. Surely, after In Bruges, rather than going backwards to a relatively more low-key, low-budget route, McDonagh would be aiming for a broader and more international market than this, one looking for the type of Tarantino-style crime capers in a style that the director abandoned after Pulp Fiction? While a quick check on IMDb does indeed reveal that Martin McDonagh next project is Seven Psychopaths, starring Colin Farrell, Mickey Rourke, Sam Rockwell and Christopher Walken, and one can be fairly sure – based on the evidence so far – that while it’s likely to be a dazzling and entertaining experience with a witty script and explosive action, it’s unlikely that it will have quite the same level of care and attention to character detail that is evident in John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard. And it probably won’t have Brendan Gleeson either.



out of 10

Last updated: 31/05/2018 20:50:17

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