There’s a scene midway through The Guard where Brendon Gleeson and Don Cheadle have an extended conversation in a pub. Cheadle’s explaining some details of the drug ring and criminals the two are trying to stop. Gleeson looks like a boy being handed his homework assignment and is far more engaged in his beer and the pub’s shoot-’em-up arcade game.
Then you notice that Gleeson’s plastic arcade gun is pressed directly against the screen—he’s cheating. Now if you don’t know anything about arcade games you may miss it, even if you do, you may miss it, and while it doesn’t quite save the scene from being some overly long exposition, it’s a fantastic character touch. And that’s kind of the The Guardin a nutshell: a movie that’s willing to make sacrifices of pacing, plot, and whatever else if it can just have some more fun with its protagonist.
And, for the most part, it works, thanks to Gleeson, who plays Boyle, a roly-poly Irish West County policeman who sees himself as slightly above the law. He’s not the type of fellow who’d commit actual murder, mind you, but he doesn’t mind stopping off at the pub for a quick pint while on duty or even sampling a spot of acid now and then.
He also doesn’t mind dropping racial slurs or telling people he placed fourth in the Olympics. The truth of whether he’s a racist or really that good of a swimmer is questionable, but it’s the kind of character trait that elevates Boyle above the stale archetype of the Dirty Cop—aided in no small way by all the nuances and charm of Gleeson’s performance.
The story (not that it’s necessary) begins proper when Boyle uncovers a murdered drug dealer. The fact that Boyle seems much more interested in ribbing his new Dubliner partner than in the actual crime tells a lot about him. But again, where one would expect the older cop to show this city boy how to handle things out in the sticks, director John Michael McDonagh plays it to suggest that Boyle’s only real strength is chiding. Is he a good cop? Or at least decent at his job? You never quite know.
But the case persists, and since Boyle won’t do the detective work, the movie does it for us, introducing three mismatched international drug dealers with an odd fondness for philosophy—or at least the best quotes. Each one dressed in their own distinct garb, through their atypical discussion of Nietzsche (atypical for gangsters, I presume), they establish a pecking order of sorts and demonstrate their ruthlessness by casually dispatching the guard who pulls them over.
The internationality of their trade brings in FBI agent Wendell Everett (Cheadle), who’s naturally not free from Boyle’s jests—he’s just a bit more prone. And when the two are paired together, well, you more or less get what you saw in the trailer. Though Cheadle’s role isn’t as big as the advertising makes it seem, this is not so much a buddy-cop film as it is an exploration of Boyle’s character, he does provide fodder for some of the best lines.
The specific details of the case and its investigation aren’t terribly important because the heart of The Guard exists not in the story but in Boyle. The subplot with his mother is not only a delight to watch but is crucial to understanding the façade of an ignorant boor he’s built around himself.
There are a few missteps, however. In one sequence, Cheadle interviews some locals who prefer to speak Gaelic to him simply so they can avoid answering any of his questions. It’s funny, and Cheadle plays it well, but what’s the point? It feels out of place since the movie’s already declared (and reinforced) that its focus is squarely set on Gleeson. What are we supposed to make of this sudden shift? Is the movie now going to follow Cheadle and his adventures as a black FBI agent in Ireland?
It’s a minor point, but there are a few scenes in The Guard that feel like they could have been cut. But all the rest (and the best action sequence of the summer) make it a gem worth seeking out. In all, it’s a movie of such odd little strengths that its highlight is another exposition drop (again involving Gleeson’s hands) between the hero and the man who’s sent to kill him.
Their dialogue, and many others in the film, seeks to find a common ground among a world of differences—regardless of circumstance. And if anything can be said of Boyle, it’s that he’s just as out of place as everyone else. Though whether in the cold fields of Ireland, the town pub, or even Disney World, like a hermit, each place to Boyle is home.