Sgt. Gerry Boyle is a man of simple pleasures. The unassuming, burly inspector works the unspectacular beat in his quiet, rainy hamlet of Galway, Ireland, wasting the days away alone with his Chet Baker record collection and his afternoons of illicit sex with the prostitutes of Dublin. His identification with police television shows is one of the very few ways he connects with the outside world of what he does, as his menial tasks seem far away from the pavement-slapping action of his colleagues. He's the rarest of movie cops: the one who seems almost offended at the possibility of interrupting his lifestyle for high speed chases or sexy gunfights.
The perverse joke at the heart of "The Guard," one that "Hot Fuzz" told a few years ago in between its canny genre digressions, is that Boyle is about to experience a genuine full-blown murder mystery. Galway is now ground zero for a massive multimillion dollar drug deal, one that sparks the international attention of the FBI. Enter Wendell Everett, an agent from the Midwest who is paired with Boyle in a teaming that's oil and vinegar, if vinegar were to suddenly have chemically-volatile properties.
What writer-director John Michael McDonagh conveys is a simple emphasis on character most movies avoid. Usually there is a clear dichotomy between the intelligent, perceptive participants in the narrative versus the rubes. But get four, five, six people together in a room, and eventually these people will reveal all their deficiencies. In "The Guard," Everett is a Rhodes scholar from Yale with no awareness that Gaelic, which he doesn't speak, is the dominant dialect in the region he is investigating. And Boyle, so dim in a number of superficial ways, is smart enough to not open his mouth and remove all doubt.
On the other side of the law, pusher Clive Cornell can't reconcile the dirty hands he has with the company he maintains. Well-kept and ill-tempered, Cornell is easily upset by the consistent dim-bulbery of his criminal associates. He bemoans not only the tackiness of his would-be business partners, but also, in a hilarious bit of anal-retentiveness, their Americanized slang and sloganeering. This suggests the amusing possibility that American pop culture, particularly in its embrace of quips and wisecracks, has done more for the global criminal community than any shipment of drugs or culturally insensitive attitude towards murder.
In the annals of cop buddy movies, Boyle and Everett aren’t exactly the most exciting combination. There is a begrudging respect that goes both ways, as Boyle knows the local beat better than everyone (mostly due to his own hard living and drug abuse), and Everett has the best interests of the law in his heart. The bearish Brendan Gleeson gives Boyle a charming, boyish-lad charm that forgives his insensitivity when he asks Everett about growing up “in the projects,” while Don Cheadle plays Everett as a no-nonsense, humorless prig. It could be the odd chemistry between these two acting vets, but this is a duo the audience never finds endearing, particularly because the plot constantly gives them reasons to not be interested in each other. When they do spend extended time together, it’s with a beer in hand, as Boyle usually breaks the silence to tell ribald stories of his bedroom conquests, which Everett quickly silences.
Much more interesting, though sadly given far less screen time, are the exploits of Clive and his associates. As played by the ubiquitous Mark Strong, Clive is a vain snob who was seduced into a life of crime, only to discover how glamour-less it is driving around with tacky imbeciles, only to make exchanges with more tacky imbeciles. Crime from station-to-station is the reality, and it bores him, though there’s the slight spark when he realizes Boyle is not only slowly solving the case, but seems genuinely principled, though we know that’s because he’s corrupted himself in every other way. And as the crooked police chief, Liam Cunningham turns in another salty, brassy turn, though you’d like to see him in something that makes better use of his outsized, hyper-real presence than a laidback small-town caper.
“The Guard” has a tone that wavers between down-home crime comedy and seedy, rule-breaking cop picture, an uneasy alliance brokered successfully by a multi-faceted rock score from Calexico. Though the ties that bind Boyle and Everett remain a bit slack, the film has a shaggy dog charm in its quieter comedic scenes, but still manages to convey the thrill of the pursuit of justice, particularly as the film culminates in a memorable, deft shootout. As shotguns are fired at close range, it’s a reminder that, as many laughs as these characters can have, and as many genres as this film may straddle, there is the sense that it always has to end in blood. [B]