When it comes to memorable comedic combinations, few prove so potently successful as dark comedy and Irish accents. Politically incorrect Irish wisecrackings garner quite the comical response, and in the black comedy “The Guard,” Brendan Gleeson zestfully delivers those in spades.
Best known as Mad-Eye Moody in the “Harry Potter” films, Dublin native Gleeson plays Sergeant Gerry Boyle, a laid-back, unruly policeman in a small Irish town. It’s clear from the opening scene, where Boyle consumes a hit of acid he finds on a dead passenger at the scene of a car crash, that he’s no ordinary upholder of the law. He’s hilariously offensive too, evidenced later that day with a bevy of ignorant racist comments during a police briefing; he slyly explains himself by saying that racism is a part of Irish culture.
Leading the briefing is straight-laced American FBI agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle), who’s looking for a group of drug smugglers waiting for a shipment in the town. When Boyle is the only one with any clues on the case, they are forced to team up, creating an odd couple whose incendiary verbal sparring matches are the delightfully witty highlight of the film. From Everett sarcastically disproving Boyle’s inherently racist beliefs to incredulously listening to Boyle openly describe his drug use, how he spends his days off with Dublin hookers and even about his trip to Disney World by himself, the culture clash is uproariously entertaining to watch.
Their investigation progresses with difficulty, as the drug smugglers bribe all the other officers until eventually coming to a showdown with Boyle and Everett. Composed of Liam Cunningham as the shrewd leader of the operation, Mark Strong as the cynical, agitated hired hand and David Wilmot as the sociopathic wild card, their conversations prove quite amusing as well. Arguing over topics like why it seems as if all the great philosophers are English, they’re far more intellectually stimulating than the average bad guys, and Strong in particular is a real hoot in a satiric portrayal of his usual villainous persona.
It’s no coincidence that “The Guard” bares a strong familial resemblance to the brilliant 2008 black comedy “In Bruges,” which starred Gleeson in a similar role and showcased a comprable off-beat sense of humor. Writer/director John Michael McDonagh seems to have taken some cues from his brother Martin, who made that film, and it shows in the clever, sharp dialogue, the endearing characters and the sublime transitions from the hysterical to the meaningful.
McDonagh maintains his own style too, craftily working in a couple of unique pop culture references here and there to great effect and getting the most out of the Irish setting with the stunning landscapes and quaint locals. His coolest touch is employing an exciting, guitar-heavy score that feels straight out of a spaghetti western, which adds to the persona of a cowboy that Boyle slowly resembles more and more as he takes on the responsibility of the mission at hand.
Gleeson portrays Boyle with such a grinning exuberance and blissful ignorance that he’s immediately lovable, delivering one of his most enjoyable performances yet. His more tender and vulnerable side comes out while visiting his ailing mother (Fionnula Flanagan) and as he solemnly realizes he must face the dangerous drug smugglers head-on. It’s the emotion Gleeson brings to those scenes that make them and the entire transition of the third act into more dramatic territory work (a tonal change that’s a staple of most great dark comedies), instilling a touching underpinning to the boisterous humor.
Cheadle slides into his role just as smoothly. He usually sticks to more serious acting, but here he lets loose a little and his chemistry with Gleeson sparks with dry, sardonic wit. It’s fun seeing him play outside his usual zone, even if he is still playing the straight man. His scenes with Gleeson are so satisfying you’ll wish there were more.
“The Guard” isn’t the funniest movie so far this year, but it’s definitely up there, far and above anything out of Hollywood. Dark comedies of this pedigree only come along once in a blue moon, and the fact that it’s out of Ireland only makes it a rarer achievement. Gleefully foul-mouthed but with a heart, acutely (and very darkly) comic, a little strange and a lot original, this is one encounter with the cops you won’t regret.
Three out of Four Stars