The Guard is directed by John Michael McDonagh, the brother of respected playwright and filmmaker Martin McDonagh (Six Shooter and In Bruges). Similarities in tone between the McDonagh’s two features make comparing them almost impossible. While Martin's earlier Belgian-set hit man comedy is the superior film, John Michael's buddy movie is far from disappointing.
Brendan Gleeson is Sergeant Gerry Boyle, a Galway police officer, who takes his job lightly, preferring shoot 'em up games, alcohols, drugs and prostitutes. When reports come in that a half billion-dollar drug shipment is going to arrive on his patch, Boyle is teamed up with strait-laced FBI officer Wendell Everett, played by Don Cheadle. Alongside their mutual dislike pay-offs, blackmails, psychopaths and a bag of guns complicate things. On top of this, Boyle has to cope with his dying mother Eileen (Fionnula Flanagan).
Any plot synopsis of this film can't help but make the film sound hopelessly clichéd. However, one of the film’s most successful features is the fact that it breathes new life into the formula. Its hard to think of it has a film in the vein of the Lethal Weapon franchise, especially because McDonagh makes the film his own. Sequences familiar to the genre are followed by more strange and outlandish scenes, such as when the film’s villains (Ian Cunningham, Mark Strong and David Wilmot) philosophise about their profession while watching fish in an aquarium. There are enough scenes like these to make the film feel fresh, often funny and somewhat experimental.
However, none of this would matter if a less convincing actor had played Gerry Boyle. It is hard to think of a recent film that has been so geared towards one actor. Brendan Gleeson may not be stretching his ability very much, but he is almost note-perfect in the lead role. He’s played this kind of role several times, but rarely in the lead role and arguably never with so fine a script. Don Cheadle does not get much to do, playing what is mainly the straight man, the foil to Gleeson’s cop. Though he does have a few good lines. Undoubtedly, however, this is Gleeson’s film and he walks away with it.
The film is cynical and offensive (no one comes out of it well) but it has a heart. Like his brother before him – Martin made a hit man comedy with characters with morals, regrets, hopes and dreams – John Michael McDonagh gives the buddy cop movie a shade of melancholy. He is not afraid to deal with loss in the scenes with Boyle’s dying mother. As with In Bruges, some scenes are quite moving, though many of them end too quickly. As well as this, Martin McDonagh could work on your emotions covertly, whereas with his brother, you always know when the sad bit is coming. That said, it is a welcome addition to the genre.
Ending with the knowing flamboyance of the final shoot-out, The Guard is a lot of fun and very funny. Though John Michael McDonagh doesn’t quite attain the brilliance of his brother’s film, it remains a film worth seeing. As we wait for Martin McDonagh’s second feature, this is a worthy surrogate.