Boldly trashing the tourist image of County Galway, The Guard presents rural Ireland as a hotbed of joyriding, hidden arms caches, Country and Western loving terrorists, bent coppers, sex, drugs and violence. But far from being a harsh expose of social deprivation, crime and corruption, McDonagh’s riotously entertaining film wants us to look at Galway as a frontier, a wild west playground where an iconoclastic character like Sergeant Gerry Boyle (Gleeson) can stride the land.
Intelligence is received of a major amount of cocaine coming into Ireland by sea, so great an amount that the F.B.I. have sent an agent Wendell Everett (Cheedle) to liaise with local law enforcement. When Boyle recognises one of the suspected drug runners as a body he has just checked into the morgue, Everett and Boyle are forced to work together (or rather Everett works, its Boyle’s day off and he has an appointment booked with two escorts). Matters turn serious when it seems that every other cop in Ireland except Boyle is on the take, and the scene is set for a showdown between the only honest cop and the outlaws. Except Boyle isn’t exactly the epitome of an honest cop. He’s partial to recreational chemicals, drinks on duty, enjoys the company of prostitutes, and has some dodgy deals of his own on the side. However he has an anti-authoritarian streak as wide as the Irish Sea and if his superiors are on the take, it’s a matter of perverse pride that he isn’t. A fantastic character, Boyle is a mess of contradictions, an anarchist wearing the uniform of authority. When Everett tells Boyle that he “can’t figure out if you’re really smart, or really dumb” the audience is likely to be just as conflicted.
This is essentially a classic western, a pickled version of High Noon as written by Quentin Tarantino had he grown up in Galway. Writer/director John Michael McDonagh is the brother of Martin McDonagh of In Bruges fame. Clearly a certain scabrous sense of humour runs in the family. Some people have complained that The Guard is In Bruges-lite, and it’s true that the film does not have the same heart of darkness, but so what? This is a completely entertaining film, in which nearly every line is laugh-out-loud funny. Gleeson has been an Irish national treasure for some time now, but Boyle could turn out to be a defining character for the actor. Certainly the movie has been doing big box office in Ireland, suggesting the native audience have taken it to their hearts.
In addition to Gleeson, Cheedle is also great value, essentially playing the straight man role. A terrific trio of actors filling out the outlaw roles, Liam Cunningham is the leader, David Wilmot the psycho, and Mark Strong is the token Englishman. A very amusing running gag involves the villains being continually appalled by the moral turpitude of the coppers they bribe. There is also a wonderful performance from Fionnula Flanagan as Boyle’s ailing mother, their relationship is both funny and moving and gives Gleeson’s character heart and pathos.
Essentially an American B movie transposed to Ireland, The Guard is both profane and sweet, and it slips down as easy as the fourth pint of the dark stuff.