Theaters may be crowded with dirty-mouthed crime flicks, but there can never be enough films as well-acted, explosively funny, and tightly executed as John Michael McDonagh’s Irish crime flick The Guard, which boasts the latest in a brilliant string of performances by bastard-with-a-brogue specialist Brendan Gleeson.
Fans of Gleeson — of which there should be many more — will recognize that he’s reprising many of the same nasty melodies he played so viciously, and very recently, in the Irish gangster flicks Perrier’s Bounty and In Bruges, the latter of which was written and directed by John Michael’s more famous brother Martin McDonagh, who executive produces here. Rambling around the dank coastal area of Connemara, Gleeson’s Sargeant Gerry Boyle is hard-drinking, pill-popping, fatalistic cop with a taste for role-playing prostitutes, and a sick mother who needs his care. His bleak and black-hearted sense of humor primarily involves degrading, belittling, or slyly taunting everyone around him. Gleeson is a blaspheming, kinky Fatty Arbuckle with a chip on his shoulder.
When Don Cheadle arrives playing Wendell, a Rhodes scholar FBI agent, Boyle feigns naïveté and says, “I thought only black kids are drug dealers.” When Wendell objects he replies, deadpan, “I’m Irish, sir, racism is part of my culture.” If you don’t like it, says Gleeson, “Fuck off to America with your appropriate Barack fucking Obama.” The rest of the film is similarly, giddily offensive: There are morbid jokes about molesting lambs, comic repartee spoken over corpses, crooks who absurdly name-check Bertrand Russell and Nietzsche, and only a few lines that don’t contain a creative new use of the word “motherfucker.”
The rest of the cast is aces: With Gleeson playing the gabby showboat, Cheadle, who also co-produced the film, is a marvelous straight man. Irish toughie Liam Cunningham plays a drug-importing corporate brute, and Mark Strong is the nasty Moe leading the bad guys’ three sadistic Stooges, so overstuffed with bile and exhausted by his own malice that he plays each scene with a whiff of burnt brimstone. “When I applied for the position of international drug trafficker,” he complains, when asked to help remove a corpse, “it said nothing about the heavy lifting.” We’ve heard such black humor before, of course, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t funny as hell.
It’s all a bit ridiculous, but McDonagh knows it. He never overreaches for some deeper meaning that his dirty fun can’t support. The film is beautifully shot — murky palettes made fresh — by excellent cinematographer Larry Smith (Eyes Wide Shut, Bronson). The Southwestern band Calexico delivers an original, neo-Western score that gives the film a mythic, contemporary, and slightly off-kilter feel. In the end, there’s nothing new here except the execution, which is sharp as a pistol-whip.