Murtaugh and Riggs. Tango and Cash. The buddy cop partnership has become such a familiar movie staple that it’s now a common subject of parody. See Adam McKay’s flawed yet funny The Other Guys, and Kevin Smith’s flawed and less funny Cop Out.
Written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, The Guard may well be the funniest and most intelligent deconstruction of the buddy cop thriller yet made. In case you didn’t already know, John Michael McDonagh is the brother of Martin McDonagh, the writer and director of the fantastic In Bruges, which should give you an indication of the kind of humour you can expect to find in The Guard.
Set far from the more typical cop thriller locations of New York or Chicago, The Guard introduces us to small town Irish lawman, Sergeant Gerry Boyle (Brendan Gleeson). A cop more interested in hiring hookers and imbibing booze than catching criminals, his daily routine appears to involve driving around his sleepy Galway village, and occasionally plucking bags of drugs from the bodies of unconscious joy riders.
Then, Boyle’s normal routine is shaken up by the kind of gangland murder more commonly seen in an American city than a quiet Irish coastal community. The killing, we learn, is the handiwork of a group of drug runners, criminal mastermind, Francis (Liam Cunningham), world-weary Londoner, Clive (Mark Strong), and wild-eyed psycho, Liam (David Wilmot). They’re members of an international drug smuggling ring, and have chosen Sergeant Boyle’s village as a base for their latest multimillion dollar cocaine shipment.
Hot on the criminals’ heels is the professional, by the book FBI agent, Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle). Slick and full of determination, he soon discovers that all his training can’t prepare him for the singularly unhelpful residents of this sleepy Irish town. In order to catch the drug smugglers, Everett, therefore, has to form an uneasy partnership with the unorthodox Boyle.
As premises go, The Guard‘s is as wilfully generic as they come. But this familiar story is merely a launch pad for the film’s strongest selling points, Brendan Gleeson’s brilliant, bullish acting, and McDonagh’s pithy script.
In his debut big-screen feature, McDonagh shows an effortless ability to introduce characters in unusual, memorable ways. A high octane pre-credit sequence, in which a Japanese hatchback speeds through the Irish countryside with a group of stoned teenagers hunched inside it, abruptly gives way to a rug pull moment that introduces the amoral, dryly amusing Sergeant Boyle perfectly.
Later, the film’s trio of hoodlums are introduced via a lengthy dialogue sequence that takes in the philosophical works of Nietzsche.
It’s inarguably The Guard‘s dialogue and characterisation that makes the film as great as it is, and its story necessarily takes a back seat to its witty, edgy exchanges and shards of black humour. You could argue, in fact, that The Guard‘s strict adherence to the conventions of the buddy cop thriller genre make it a little too predictable at times, and it’s a pity that the plot throws up few surprises in its lean running time.
Then again, plot twists and tension are seldom missed in a film as reliably filled with laughs as this. Don Cheadle is perfect as the straight man in The Guard‘s central double act, reacting perfectly to every one of Sergeant Boyle’s bizarre decisions and shocking utterances.
It’s hard to imagine anyone other than Gleeson playing Sergeant Boyle, in fact. Many of his words and actions throughout the film would, in the hands of most other actors, immediately turn the audience against him. It’s Gleeson’s performance that injects the perfect amount of humanity and pathos into an often despicable character. Some tender scenes with Boyle’s terminally ill mother (played by Fionnula Flanagan) add depth to his character, and provide a moving counterpoint to the humour seen elsewhere.
The Guard is an assured, promising debut feature from John Michael McDonagh. It lacks the narrative drive and dark surrealism that I loved about In Bruges, but retains the same endlessly watchable chemistry between its two leads, and a great, bitingly funny script. As The Guard‘s closing credits rolled, I found myself wishing that I could spend a little more time in the company of Boyle and Everett, a sure sign, I’d argue, of a great film.