Buddy-cop films have jumped every shark in the sea, but The Guard imagines a wickedly funny fish-out-of-water twist.
An incorruptible black FBI man travels to rural West Ireland to coordinate a big international drug bust. His only real ally among the useless local cops is an abrasive bugger with a taste for drugs, prostitutes, Russian literature, and racist wisecracks.
Sgt. Gerry Boyle (Brendan Gleeson, tightening his grip on the title of Ireland's finest actor) hasn't got much use for the niceties of the law. If he finds drugs at the scene of a car crash, he'll swallow them.
Still, he has a ferocious honesty beneath that shell of world-weary cynicism. He's less interested in capturing the cocaine-smuggling ring targeted by Agent Wendell Everett (the reliably excellent Don Cheadle) than in aggravating the upright American.
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"I thought only black lads was drug runners," Boyle deadpans at a strategy meeting. When he's called on the bigoted remark, he replies with hurt mock innocence. "I'm Irish," he says. "Racism is part of me culture." In fact, his comments reflect more on the xenophobic phonies around him than his own attitudes. Dry sarcasm is his natural defense against stupidity.
Trim, prim Cheadle is an incomparable straight man, setting up his co-star to score the big laughs. As Boyle, "the last of the independents," Gleeson is a profane treasure. The movie shares his unruly independent streak. The visuals are at times wildly stylized with eye-frying colors, while the mocking, mariachi-infused soundtrack by the indie band Calexico gives the drama the flavor of a full-on Western.
Director John Michael McDonagh, who wrote his own screenplay, keeps the outlandish humor gushing and bolts Rube Goldberg tail fins onto the standard action-movie plot. This is distinctly Irish storytelling, a Guinness-dark crime comedy full of mad digressions and extraneous characters whose florid inner lives we briefly glimpse. Bouts of darkly comic violence flow into interludes of Boyle lounging about his shamrock-green digs in a smoking jacket worthy of Oscar Wilde, or lolling with hookers, or discussing Gogol with his old mum at her hospice.
The yarn's crime kingpin isn't merely ruthless and greedy. He's weary of the drug lord's life and exasperated by the dimwits who do his bidding. His outfit's triggerman can't remember if he's a psychopath or a sociopath. The local IRA chief says they welcomed gay recruits because it was the only way they could infiltrate the British secret service.
Humor and surprise are paramount in this delightful pile of blarney, plausibility not so much.
Written and directed by John Michael McDonagh. A Sony Pictures Classics release, playing at Rave Levis Commons. Rated R for pervasive language and violence. Running time: 96 minutes.
Critic's rating: *** 1/2
Wendell: Don Cheadle
Gerry: Brendan Gleeson
***** Outstanding; **** Very Good; *** Good; ** Fair; * Poor.