Mismatched cop comedies are certainly nothing new, but leave it to writer-director John Michael McDonagh to put a bit of Irish spring into an all-too-familiar concept.
“The Guard” teams dumpling-faced, plain-talking small-town police sergeant Gerry Boyle (Brendan Gleeson) with the considerably more polished and professional Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle), an FBI agent assigned to track down international narcotics traffickers who are bringing a boat full of cocaine to the Emerald Isle.
Boyle and Everett get off to a shaky start minutes into their first meeting when the blustery Boyle scoffs at Everett’s pictures of the suspects, all of whom are white. “I thought only black lads were drug dealers,” Boyle muses. “And Mexicans.”
Everett, an African-American, is stunned by such out-in-the-open ignorance. “I’m Irish,” Boyle reasons. “Racism is part of my culture.”
There’s a surprising sting in much of the humor in “The Guard,” but Gleeson and Cheadle never allow the verbal violence to degenerate into shock for shock’s sake. In Gleeson’s masterfully molded characterization, Boyle is uncouth but not insufferable.
He’s simply a guy who takes his work seriously — he calls himself “the last of the independents” — takes his time off even more seriously and lives by his own (admittedly shaky) moral code. The film opens with him surveying the wreckage of a fatal car crash that claimed the lives of a bunch of party-hearty types; Boyle checks one of the corpses, reaches into the man’s jacket and finds a tab of Ecstacy — which he nonchalantly pops into his mouth.
That kind of rule breaking doesn’t sit well with the by-the-book Everett, and the partnership is generally prickly. “Did you grow up in the projects?” Boyle asks Everett, who indignantly replies that he came from a privileged background, attended prep school and was a Rhodes Scholar. Everett doesn’t expect a bumpkin like Boyle to appreciate the significance of that honor, but Boyle once again surprises him: “I do know what a Rhodes Scholar is,” he snorts. “Kris Kristofferson.”
While Gleeson and the dryly funny Cheadle make these conversations crackle, director of photography Larry Smith and production designer John Paul Kelly ensure the look of the movie is every bit as lively and unpredictable as the dialogue. “The Guard” rings with bold colors, marvelously moody lighting and alluring coastal scenery of County Galway.
“The Guard” is not as impressive in terms of its story. McDonagh’s plot dawdles and, despite his unconventional approach to much of the material, the climax is disappointing.
It seems the crime drama was nothing more than a framework for all the amusing incidental bits McDonagh cooked up, including peculiar philosophical debates among the crooks (Liam Cunningham, Mark Strong and David Wilmot) and a disarmingly sweet subplot involving Gerry’s terminally ill but relentlessly feisty mother, Eileen (the priceless Fionnula Flanagan), that gives Gleeson an opportunity to slightly soften his character’s rough edges.
“You never gave me a moment’s grief,” Eileen murmurs as she and Gerry share a night out on the town. “You know that’s not true,” Gerry groans. “Let’s pretend it is,” Eileen quietly tells him.
Presented by East Lansing Film Society
7:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 14, and Thursday, March 15
Hannah Community Center
819 Abbot Road, East Lansing
$8; $6 seniors; $3 students
7 and 9:15 p.m. Friday, March 16, Saturday, March 17 and Sunday, March 18
Wells Hall, MSU Campus
$7; $5 seniors; $3 students