Martin McDonagh made a massive mark on two thousand and eight with his release of surprise hit In Bruges: a blunt, baudy but ultimately quite beautiful subversion on the familiar crime genre; it really was an instant classic. This year it is his brother John’s turn – thanks to Martin’s unfortunate disappearance from the scene since making that masterpiece – and for his debut he has decided to tell a very similar story in a very similar style but to an entirely different effect. If you were getting worried that I have already issued so much praise for Bruges that this film could never live up to it’s predecessor than don’t worry, because it really never tries too. If The Guard has a spiritual successor in anything than it would be the work of Edgar Wright; hell the film even repeats a Gleeson getting dressed gag for dramatic effect (and if the image of an undressed Gleeson doesn’t appeal to you than perhaps stay away from this movie). Though there is of course more to Wright than repetition, I just wonder whether or not John was aware of that fact.
The film is set in a seemingly quiet little village in the west of Ireland and follows the exploits of an unconventional county guard -or garda, as it were in the original Gaelic – played by the aforeseen and aforementioned Brendan Gleeson; who also lead In Bruges, though with an entirely different role. He seems to be having more fun in this one though and there is something so wicked and yet so gleeful about a lot of the material given to the man by McDonagh that suggests he simply must be.There is a moment in the film where someone remarks on Gleeson’s guard, ‘I can’t tell if you’re really motherfucking dumb or really motherfucking smart,’ and for the most part we really can’t either.
While there are some similarities between his role here and Farell’s in In Bruges there was a a humanity and a philosophy behind that man’s simple-mindedness and defensive attitude; here though we’re given absolutely no insight into the man’s mind, which probably only works to make him all the more shocking. Half the time he really works as a fascinating and hilarious lead but then there are the other fourty five minutes in which you’re left wondering, ‘Who the fuck is this guy, and why am I watching him?’ and this divide cuts straight through the film itself.
The other lead role is filled by Don Cheadle who plays a big-shot American FBI agent sent to Ireland to work with the local PD in tracking down a massive drug shipment and while this is seemingly the set-up for some kind of buddy-cop adventure than kind of feeling never really eventuates. Cheadle’s agent is almost instantly pushed aside as a secondary focus and to be honest the man himself seems as out of water here as his character does in the West. Whereas Gleeson feels entirely en-tuned to the minds of the McDonaghs and is written as if he is their mouthpiece, Cheadle very much comes across as something of an outsider; so despite having a number of great moments his role attains a kind of awkwardness.
So if it’s not a buddy comedy than what is it? Well I mentioned Edgar Wright before and based on the plot you’ve by now probably deduced which film in particular I was referring too (Invert the prominence of the two characters – follow a hot-shot agent into a small, sleepy village where he is partnered with an out-of shape oaf- and you’ll soon see) and this comparison is even more apt in the execution. The Guard is a Hot Fuzz for the arthouse crowd in that it takes the same kind of pleasure in subverting and re-jigging all of those old general action beats and one liners, but then strangely skips the likes of Bay and Swayze in favor of Fellini and Nietzsche when it starts to make any more specific kind of satire. Certainly there is a place for high brow ideas in action (See: The Hit, Inception) but given the crudeness of the humour these moments seem out of place in the picture; as if Paul was trying to pander to the pretentious on the side like Martin managed to do innately with the Bruges scenery.
Speaking of that crudeness, you may have noted that this post contained some profane language a few paragraphs back – so heads up for that non-linear readers – and while that’s normally not my schtick it only seems appropriate given the style of this films humour. Whereas there was some real stunning wit to be found in In Bruges dialogue and Hot Fuzz‘s subversion’s this films laughs are mostly based on balls. No, not in a Hangover kind of way, I speak figuratively. During those moments of self-awareness the film doesn’t lovingly poke fun at the films it loves, rather it attempts to rip them to shreds – usually following up a repeated line or action with some variation on ‘Why the fuck would I do [Insert Trope Here]? Am I a fucking idiot?’ Real life action events are also targeted – WACO, the IRA, etc. – and while this is admittedly hilarious the first time it happens by the third or the fourth reference it really starts to slip down into the realm of bashing.
So despite the sickness or sillyness of their content In Bruges and Hot Fuzz were both very classy comedies and the same simply cannot be said for The Guard, but I must admit that it is very much a comedy. Intentions, structure, style, morals and manners are all secondary affairs, things that come to mind after the fact and so despite failing on these fronts the film can still very much make you laugh in the moment and that is really the main reason you go to see a comedy. So while it won’t make many waves in the filmic zeitgeist of the year The Guard will keep you giggling for ninety odd minutes.