“I can’t tell if you’re really motherfucking dumb,” says FBI Agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle) to Galway Garda Sergeant Gerry Boyle (Brendan Gleeson), “or really motherfucking smart.” Perhaps a little too on the nose, this line, but it’s handled exceedingly well, coming at the tail of a fuss-free, beautifully written and realized little scene somewhere in the first third of writer/director John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard. Just two cops from very different backgrounds nestled in a car, at night, traversing the lonesome and weatherbeaten Irish countryside and sussing each other out. Well, okay, it’s really only Everett that does any detectible sussing, since Boyle never seems to be working too hard at anything.
On the surface, the corpulent, middle-aged Boyle seems the epitome of cynicism, laziness and corruption. (An opening scene I’ll refrain from spoiling wastes no time in establishing Boyle’s ethical negligence.) He is also a regular fountain of racist slurs, delivering one after another in airtight deadpan directly to his new-in-town African-American colleague from their very first exchange on. He tells tall tales, solicits prostitutes and is not adverse to appropriating evidence. Yet he seems to be be listening carefully to things, and is often one step ahead of everyone else. Which is to say that Boyle is a bit like Colombo meets the Bad Lieutenant. He goes out of his way to make it easy to underestimate him, but maintains a most peculiar, and perhaps uniquely Gaelic, sense of personal integrity.
McDonagh is the brother of Martin McDonagh, who wrote and directed the beloved black comedy In Bruges, which also featured Gleeson prominently. The Guard is looser and has less overt thematic gravity than In Bruges, and, initially at least, seems to ascribe to an ever more aggressively audacious brand of humour—a punk little brother of a movie from the punk little brother of an established playwright and filmmaker. But I like The Guard better. Perhaps it surprised me more. Perhaps it gave itself more room to make discoveries about its all-too-easily dismissable antihero. It’s intricate murder mystery/international drug trafficking plot gives it a nice anchor, but this crime-based framework—which supplies the terrific British character actor Mark Strong with another great little role as an absurdly philosophical bad guy—is essentially a beard for a highly irreverent character study.
The Guard also has its perfectly selected unlikely buddy leads going for it. Gleeson was born to embody precisely this kind of shrugged-off complexity, and Cheadle brings so much more texture and alertness to his role than most actors would deem necessary. He understands that he’s at once the audience’s surrogate, intermittently offended and genuinely uncertain as to what to make of Gleeson, and a unique character with his own understated backstory and reasons for being where he is, doing the things he’s doing. Why after all these years Cheadle isn’t a full-on American movie star I’ll never understand.