Review: 'The Guard' breathes life into black-comedy formula

Will hard-nosed FBI agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle), left, be able to work with willful Irish police sergeant Gerry Boyle (Brendan Gleeson) in "The Guard"? Yeah, you know the answer.

Photo by Jonathan Hession

Will hard-nosed FBI agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle), left, be able to work with willful Irish police sergeant Gerry Boyle (Brendan Gleeson) in "The Guard"? Yeah, you know the answer.

Sergeant Gerry Boyle, a salty village cop in Ireland, has a subversive sense of humor, a caustic wit, and an uncanny knack for keeping people ...

Rating: R

Length: 96 minutes

Released: July 29, 2011 Limited

Cast: Brendan Gleeson, Don Cheadle, Liam Cunningham, David Wilmot, Rory Keenan

Director: John Michael McDonagh

Writer: John Michael McDonagh

More info and showtimes »

As befits a film set in the spacious west of Ireland, "The Guard" is not a breath but a great gust of very funny fresh air. An impish and impudent black comedy that knows where it's going and how to get there, it gives veteran actor Brendan Gleeson one of the tastiest roles of his career and introduces a gifted writer-director with a familiar family name.

Making his feature directing debut is John Michael McDonagh, the older brother of playwright-filmmaker Martin McDonagh. Fans of the younger man's "In Bruges" will recognize a similar sensibility at work here, but "The Guard" has a brightness and high energy all its own.

The most familiar thing about "The Guard" is its "Beverly Hills Cop" framing device, with Gleeson's unconventional Irish police sergeant giving conniptions to a by-the-book American FBI agent coolly played by Don Cheadle.

What McDonagh has added to the mix is a great sense of character and place, a plot generous with surprises, and drop-dead sarcastic dialogue that is wickedly comic and unapologetically profane. This is a film in which a killer insists he is a sociopath not a psychopath, the bad guys discuss Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, and the local policeman in the Gaelic-speaking Connemara drinks on duty, dabbles in drugs and patronizes hookers who dress like cops in miniskirts.

That would be Sgt. Gerry Boyle, otherwise known as the law west of Galway. A jaundiced policeman who's seen everything and takes nothing seriously, he suffers fools not at all and though he cares about right and wrong, it's very much on his own terms.

It's hard to overstate how well this role is tailored to Gleeson's gifts, including his way with a raised eyebrow and a talent for the rowdier words in the English language.

Though he would likely deny it, Sgt. Boyle is more complicated and unexpected than the "lowly country nobody" he likes to call himself, and Gleeson has the skill to make those parts, like his devotion to his terminally ill mother (the veteran Fionnula Flanagan), just as involving as the comedy.

Two things Sgt. Boyle doesn't like doing start the film: He has to break in a new subordinate, Aidan McBride (Rory Keenan), and he has to investigate a murder in his jurisdiction. The body of a man is found with Bible pages in his mouth, a potted plant between his legs and the number "5 " written on the wall. Is it, Boyle wonders, the work of a serial killer, "the Ted Bundy of the West"?

Before the investigation can get properly under way, the sergeant is called from rural Connemara to Galway to attend a briefing from patrician African-American FBI agent Wendell Everett (Cheadle), who has it on good information that half a billion dollars worth of cocaine is going to be off-loaded in the area. Sgt. Boyle, who has a deadpan genius for pulling people's legs, pipes up and says, "I thought only black lads are drug dealers." Called to task, he replies, "I'm Irish: Racism is part of my culture."

Despite his doubts, the bad guys really are coming to Boyle's neck of the woods, and they are quite a trio: the all-business Francis Sheehy-Skeffington (Liam Cunningham), the genial psycho killer Liam O'Leary (David Wilmot), and the grumpy Clive Cornell (an expert Mark Strong), given to saying things like "I'm sick and tired of the kind of people you have to deal with in this business."

It's a given, their differences notwithstanding, that the fish-out-of-water FBI agent and the local antihero are going to find a way to make beautiful music together, but that doesn't keep the rapprochement from being great fun to experience.

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