Director: John Michael McDonagh
Starring: Brendan Gleeson, Don Cheadle
The small town comedy, the fish out of water story, the anti-hero who subverts expectations, the buddy cop/opposites forced to work together action/comedy - each one is familiar to anyone with even passing interest in cinema, but when those elements are used well, that familiarity acts as a comforting narrative cushion, rather than a hinderance. The Guard makes use of a number of well-worn tropes but rather than resting on the laurels of past successes, it brings something of its own to the table. Headlined by a great performance by Brendan Gleeson, The Guard is a minor gem.
Gleeson stars as Gerry Boyle, a police sergeant with unorthodox methods, such as experimenting with drugs he finds at the scene of crimes, taking a holiday in the middle of a major murder and drug trafficking investigation, and spending his down time in the company of a pair of prostitutes. As the film opens he meets his new partner, McBride (Rory Keenan), who is as fresh faced and idealistic as Boyle is cynical and caustic. A grisly murder has taken place with seemingly occult overtones, which the pair are just beginning to investigate when an international drug trafficking operation brings the FBI to town. Boyle immediately gets off on the wrong foot with Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle), the FBI agent in charge of the investigation, due to his... colorful sense of humor ("I'm Irish. Racism is part of my culture.") and while he's attending the FBI debriefing, McBride finds himself in exactly the wrong place at exactly the wrong time. The three men the FBI is looking for - Sheehy, O'Leary, and Cornell (Liam Cunningham, David Wilot, and Mark Strong) - are pulled over by McBride in what should be a routine traffic stop, but which ends with McBride's murder.
The murder is made to look like a suicide, which neither Boyle nor McBride's wife, Gabriela (Katarina Cas), find plausible. Meanwhile, the search for the drug traffickers continues but the FBI's efforts to prevent the shipment of drugs from being into Ireland is undermined by the corruption of the police who are supposed to be helping them, but are instead all too happy to take a bribe from Sheehy, O'Leary and Cornell. Boyle would just as soon let sleeping dogs lie rather than get involved, but is pushed to the limit by his knowledge of what has happened to McBride, the death of his mother (Fionnula Flanagan), a blackmail attempt, and an assassination attempt, and decides to take action and try to foil the drug ring.
The Guard is helmed by John Michael McDonagh (brother of Martin McDonagh, who directed Gleeson in the wonderful In Bruges), who also takes on screenwriting duties. It's a tightly plotted film that finds a good balance between the elements that push the plot forward, and the elements that add color to the story and bring its world so vibrantly to life. The film is very much at ease in its setting and moves at a natural and comfortable pace, transitioning easily from moments of comedy to moments of drama to action. On the face of it, the basics of the plot aren't terribly original, but The Guard ultimately offers a fresh enough take on genre conventions to make them wholly its own.
While McDonagh brings a great deal to the film, The Guard's greatest asset is Gleeson. Boyle isn't really "good," objectively speaking, but he's bad in ways that are largely harmless - he's got a lot of bark, but he doesn't actually bite unless provoked. There are a lot of hard edges to Boyle, but there is a great deal of humanity there as well, which comes across in his scenes with his dying mother and with Gabriela. There isn't a moment in the performance that feels false or, indeed, feels like "performance." It is simply another great turn from a man who is one of the most reliable character actors working today.