*This review may contain spoilers in the Guinness - watch before reading*
I think the crude-talking, racist, sexist, disabilitist Sergeant Gerry Boyle (Brendan Gleeson), from the Galway Garda, is actually a big pudding-headed softie at heart. And he is. Teamed with a black FBI agent, Wendell Everett, played by the enigmatic Don Cheadle who is reluctantly sent over to County Galway to help catch a gang of drug smugglers hiding out (or rather, just obviously hanging out) in the sleepy Connemara district, there could be a coming to blows when Agent Everett is forced to grit his teeth and shake down his sanity when spending way too much time hanging out in bars and cop cars with the potty-mouthed, devil-may-care, Boyle.
Of course, when it comes to fighting crime and police corruption - Sergeant Gerry Boyle proves he's less of a shit, more of a hero than anyone realised. Sergeant Boyle doesn't mind the drug smuggling bit so much, in fact - he's cool with it, and often tries out the drugs he confiscates on a regular basis. But when the gang members target his own - then Gerry puts on his best cop gear and goes all Death Wish on us.
Directed by John Michael McDonagh, who others may bleat at you about being the less famous brother of playwright and director Martin McDonagh (mostly well known for the film 'In Bruges' also featuring Brendan Gleeson), this is a comedy thriller that twists and turns and could make you sick, unless you know how to ride with it.
The frantic pace followed by long moments of languid introspection - if often funny languid introspection - from the cast is disorientating at first. As is the character of Sergeant Boyle - he's a complete bastard, then turns out to be caring and sensitive, especially when it comes to looking after his sick and dying mother; a truly tender, sad, and finely judged subplot to care about.
When not being a hero, he's cavorting with 'hired help', well, ok; girls of the night - dressed up as saucy-stockinged policewomen for a hotel threesome that lands him in all kinds of trouble. Whatever you do, watch out for the name Sarah Greene (no, not the Sarah Greene who married Mike Smith and appeared in Ghostwatch) in future movies. Here she plays one of the two turning-it-on temptresses. Am I in love with this actress after seeing this movie? Probably. And it's not just the suspenders talking - Greene has already earned rave reviews in theatre roles and films such as 2009's Love & Savagery (a film which was supposedly confiscated by Montreal customs when sent for processing as the title suggested a more adult movie than a doomed, desperate love story set in a sleepy Irish coastal village - you couldn't make it up!).
Now for the heavies - and what a sorry lot these three guys are. They may be heavy by nature; cruel and merciless - but they like a spot of existential naval-gazing too. It really screws them up. As one of the bad - really quite staggeringly bad - guys, Mark Strong is truly hilarious (as well as suitably thuggish) as Clive Cornell - a gangster with an 'is there more to my life than being an evil gangster all the time - and what does it mean to be me anyway?' kind of mid-life existential crisis.
Actually, all three of the drug thugs indulge in random acts of (often unexpected and shocking and quite realistic) violence one moment, only to debate the merits of weighty literary classics the next. There's one scene that sears itself on the memory when the three gangsters - more Three Stooges than big bad wolves - discuss the nature of life, self and predetermination in front of a beautifully lit aquarium. And I really do mean beautifully lit. The long slow line, spoken by Mark Strong: "I like sharks" - just that, has never sounded more poignant and meaningful a line in the history of the movies. It has to mean something - doesn't it? The answer to life, the universe, and yeah, probably everything. At that moment, in front of the aquarium, believe me - it does.
The beautiful Galway scenery showcased throughout the film draws the breath away. Some stylised touches don't work as well as they could - a complete dizzying circle by the camera out on some local marshland, featuring a young boy watching the Sergeant approach him, is too noticeable (going from boy to Sergeant and back again) and perhaps trying too hard to impress to be quite as good as it could be. Or thinks it is (although, some time after watching the movie, I come back to this review and it's probably the scene I remember the most - so there, to me!).
And I like the fact that the film is constantly trying something new; the direction never treading water. Even when it doesn't quite work. Whether in an aquarium, in a marsh - or wherever. And I really like the openness of the marshland scenes; the isolation of those moments set in the middle of nowhere - gorgeous, rich, vibrant, autumnal cinematography. And I think the circling camera shows that isolation up well. Can you feel my previous criticism of this scene continue to crumble even further?
With a wonderful scene-copulating star turn from Brendan Gleeson as Sergeant Boyle, it's the supporting cast that's the real cherry on the fruit cake. Mark Strong may play the most soul-searching member of the drug smuggling band of three, but the always enigmatic and achingly suave Liam Cunningham as Francis Sheehy-Skeffington is gangster numero uno - a criminal mastermind who seems equally at ease asking his fellow partners in crime for their favourite literary quotes as he is randomly ordering the killing of people he doesn't like. While this gang are the best read reprobates in town, the showdown between Sheehy and Boyle at the end of the film is worthy of any James Bond or Lethal Weapon ending - just a little more brutal.
The bad guys are completed by a greasy-haired and wild-eyed David Wilmot as resident killer (aka ‘the one that does all the dirty work’) Liam O’Leary - a lad who will always be the heavy most likely (spoiler follows!) to meet death from behind a big man’s trouser zip.
But we’re saving the best until last. Fionnula Flanagan is heartbreaking as Boyle's mother. Heartbreaking and full of spark and sharp, self-depreciating wit. I see lots of awards already waiting and glinting off camera. Surely to God!
Supported by the Irish Film Board as well as the (since deceased) UK Film Council (now the BFI) - The Guard is a staunchly Irish comedy that appeals to all, where nothing is as it seems, crammed to the brim with: warmth and random acts of violence, drunkenness and slapstick comedy, local girls in suspenders and shoot-outs, drug abuse and politically incorrect jokes, personal soul-searching among the criminal fraternity - and a really cheeky local boy on a bike. What's not to love?
The soundtrack veers from the loud and distorted, ear exploding thuddery of Calexico's 'Beautiful Fucking Day' (the cinema I viewed this film in noticeably turned the volume down shortly after this opening sonic abuse to the earways!) to the more traditional wistful hush in the end credits of 'Leaving on a Jet Plane'. Like the film itself, nothing seems to fit throughout, but still somehow fits together perfectly, perhaps about twenty minutes in, well - you need time to adjust, tune in, chill out. But when you get there, you wonder why life can't always be this random.
It doesn't work all the time. Some jokes fall flat. One joke about being "a spastic" didn't raise so much as a snigger in the hall. Even though it was meant to reflect the Sergeant trying to shock the newest member on the force, including the moment he fondles a dead man's crotch (much to the new recruits shock), in the same scene. But the joke oversteps the mark and isn't funny. Other jokes are spot on, drop dead sharp and off the wall witty. I came away from this film with a stupid fat smile on my face. A bit like Sergeant Gerry Boyle's. But, also like Sergeant Boyle, little does anyone know what that stupid fat smile of mine is really hiding. But whatever the merits of this movie are - and there are many - at the end of the day, any film that thanks Wonderbra in the end credits surely deserves a bit of a boost and a pat on the back.
Words: Mark Gordon Palmer