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Non-Review Review: The Guard

“Good to go,” an Irish drug smuggler remarks as the plan comes together for a big delivery. His English colleague derisively remarks, “I f**king hate that. Americanisms. ‘Good to go’!” It’s hard not to read small moments like this as a bit of self-reference on the part of John Michael McDonagh, as the film takes every opportunity to reflect on the Irish fascination and digestion of American pop culture, as contrasted against the somewhat unique national character. Sparkling with witty dialogue and packed with sharply-observed commentaries on Ireland and its relationship with our bigger Atlantic cousin, The Guard is a clever little film that is well worth your time.

Once upon a time in the West...

In many ways, the movie feels like a seventies American cop thriller filtered through our distinctively Irish viewpoint. With heavy saturation of bright colours (even at night time) adding a stylised feel to the movie, and soundtrack drawing on the spaghetti Westerns of the period, McDonagh’s film consciously evokes those old American stories about an unconventional hero playing by his own rules in a system growing indifferent to the suffering of others. Sometimes that hero was a cowboy on the open plains, or a detective on the mean streets, but here it’s Sergeant Gerry Boyle in the wilds of Galway. You could insert some cheap joke about Ireland getting hand-me-downs from American pop culture forty years too late, but the movie is never mean enough to suggest it outright. If anything, it’s downright affectionate.

“You know,” FBI Agent Wendell Everett, the Rhodes scholar partnered with Boyle to foil an international drug ring, observes, “I can’t tell if you’re really motherf**king smart, or really motherf**king stupid.” Boyle replies with a wise smile and a small nod. He isn’t going to confirm it one way or another. This is Boyle, the man who has his own idea of the American experience drawn from pulpy crime stories and television – an image so concrete that he can assert Everett grew up in “the Projects” (when the FBI Agent had a very “privileged” upbringing). Boyle is a man so obsessed with America that his only trip over was a visit to Disneyworld. By himself. “I got my picture taken with Goofy,” he boasts. “He’s my favourite.” When Boyle wants to foil a missing person’s report, he wonders aloud, “What do they call it on television?” When he confirms it’s an APB, he remarks a little mournfully, “You don’t hear that too much any more.”

Raising the bar...

The film reflects on Boyle’s fascination and suggests it’s something that we Irish share as a culture. A hilarious confrontation unfolds in Eddie Rockets. For those unfamiliar, Eddie Rockets is an Irish-run franchise restaurant based around those American fifties diners. As a mission briefing descends into the old rivalry between Dublin and the rest of the country, the supervisor appeals to his officers’ sense of embarrassment before their guest, “Not in front of the American!” Clive, the drug runners’ right-hand man, is incredibly frustrated when the Irish detectives he’s bribing ask, “Is it all here?” He proceeds to tear them apart for mindlessly echoing every money exchange they’ve ever seen in cinema, observing that it would be pointless to bribe them if the money wasn’t all there. Local residents, obviously keen followers of Criminal Minds, ask repeatedly if Everett is a member of the “Behavioural Sciences Unit” and quickly lose interest when he isn’t.

It would be easy to make this a mockery of Irish fascination with American pop culture – to make cheap shots at the expense of Boyle, a man so in love with Americana he spends his mornings playing first-person shooters – but it’s to McDonagh’s credit that he doesn’t. Boyle is well-read, expressing his considered opinion on Russian writers. His unorthodox methods of policing obviously work quite well, as he has peaceful and amicable relations with the Republican groups in the area, and he’s respected by the children in the area. Even the drug dealers, for all their Americanisms, are introduced having a discourse on foreign philosophers. The key suggestion is that these local residents are somewhat smarter than they appear – with Boyle even pointing out that the local Gaelic speakers could probably speak English, but were just obfuscating Everett with their native tongue.

Steady Eddie...

In fact, it’s FBI Agent Wendell Everett, the Rhodes scholar and stylish American FBI agent, who comes out of this looking a little worse. After all, an earlier scene with the pair reveals that Boyle has had the common courtesy to research his new partner. In contrast, Everett doesn’t extend the same respect to his new colleague, casually dismissing some of Boyle’s larger-than-life claims as “bullsh!t”, when, as a native points out, they should be easy enough to verify if he wanted. Hell, he could probably even look them up on his blackberry, if he were bothered.

The movie works primarily because of Gleeson. The supporting cast is superb (from Mark Strong to Liam Cunningham to Fionnula Flanagan to Don Cheadle), but the real star of the show, and the actor who carries the weight of the film on his shoulders, is Brendan Gleeson in the role of Gerry Boyle. It’s a nice portrayal, which manages to efficiently walk the line between serious and comedic, and the film is so successful because Gleeson gets us to believe in Boyle, and to respect him. Gleeson has a long history of solid leading and supporting roles behind him, and I think that this might actually be his best role to date. And I don’t say that lightly.

Copping a feel...

The Guard is a great little Irish film, with a wonderful Irish sensibility. It’s charming enough that it can get away with several one-liners that could easily cause, to quote Everett, “an international incident”, but it also works as an affectionate homage to those old-style man-against-the-world films that American cinema used to turn out like clockwork, but don’t seem to do so frequently these days. It might not be quite as perfect as In Bruges, but it’s a damn fine little film.

17 Responses

  1. I hope this makes it near me. I’ll even make the drive to Vegas to see it. Gleeson is one of the best actors working today.

  2. This should arrive at the end of the month in my neck of the woods — does that count as an Americanism? Anyway, this is one of my anticipated films for the summer. Gleeson and Cheadle are a couple of my favorite actors (along with the newly popular Mark Strong). If it’s anywhere close to In Bruges territory, I’m going to love it. Fine review, Darren. Thanks.

    • It’s not quite as good as In Bruges, but it is very, very good.

      Being honest, I’m curious to see what the Americans out there make of it. Because Gleeson’s character is massively politically incorrect. “Ah, will you fuck off back to America with your “inappropriate” Barack O-fucking-bama bullshit!” sets the tone before the character lowers it. And it’s hilarious, because you get the sense that he’s literally doing it to play up the “ignorant country gombeen” stereotype, and having a laugh at everyone who buys into it.

  3. looks cool, i would check it out. cool post.

  4. I caught a trailer for this at the start of Midnight In Paris and instantly, the movie shot up on my “must-see” list. I’d be thrilled if this somehow made it on Amazon Instant Video sometime soon.

  5. It would be hard for this to reach In Bruges territory simply because In Bruges was one of my top three of 2008.

  6. Saw it tonight, it is ok but not great. Take a look at I went down instead.

    • I have yet to see I Went Down. I hear nothing but good things. But I did really love the Guard. Saw it twice and it held up.

  7. Great review. I saw the film last night and really enjoyed Gleeson’s performance. Be interesting to see how it’s picked up in England, or Stateside.I also came across this funny trailer for a new mock on the Irish porn industry:

    Does this mean Ireland is actually producing home grown movies as opposed to letting everyone else show us how it’s done(In Brugges etc.)?

  8. Check out this exclusive video for the movie ‘The Guard’ with cast and crew interviews, here: http://bit.ly/oGq4JV

  9. Finally caught this– it came to the local repertory theater a town over from me– and loved it. I’m cooler on In Bruges than most (I quite like it but I find it slightly flawed), but the two movies do share a common cinematic DNA, so the comparisons are very valid even if I wound up liking this one slightly more. Gleeson and Cheadle crackle together. I could have just watched the two of them argue with each other for an hour and a half and been totally satisfied.

    But I love the movie’s fascination with America and American culture and the way it’s able to reconcile that while having a laugh about it at the same time. I think it’s easy to come across as contumelious when making such observations and comments in a story, but McDonagh just sounds like he’s being honest.

    • Glad you liked it. And the thing is, from an Irish perspective, that fascination with American culture is entirely in-character for us – my better half suggests that I’m more familiar with American culture than my own, and I’m not alone at all in it. Forget the controversy over Presidential Candidate Martin McGuiness’ “West Brits” comments, maybe “East Americans” are another Irish subculture.

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