One of the sleeper hits of the year 2008 was the dark Irish comedy In Bruges from the playwright/director Martin McDonagh. What made In Bruges so interesting is that it didn’t really play like a comedy; it played like a drama which just happened to be significantly funnier than most dedicated comedies. It didn’t work perfectly for me initially but it had a lot going for it and it has stuck with me pretty well. The new Irish film The Guard, stars In Bruges alum Brendan Gleeson and is directed by Martin McDonagh’s brother John Michael McDonagh. Seeing the movie it is clear that some of Martin’s talent has indeed rubbed off on John Michael, but only some.
Here Brendan Gleeson plays a uniformed police officer named Gerry Boyle in western Ireland who is good at his job but lives a dysfunctional life. He’s maybe not as self destructive as the cop in Abel Ferrara’s (or Werner Herzog’s) Bad Lieutenant[: Port of Call New Orleans], but he’s close. He uses drugs that he finds at crime scenes and he frequently uses the services of hookers. This dysfunctional police officer finds himself in the center of one of the biggest cases of his life when an FBI agent named Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle) arrives to coordinate an international drug trafficking bust. Boyle has some information and insight into the case and can help Everett with the locale, but in typical buddy cop fashion the two are going to have to deal with their personality clashes before they can really work together.
In Bruges was a mix of dark irreverent comedy, gangster film, and redemption drama, but The Guard drops most of the dramatic elements all together and focuses exclusively on being a dark irreverent comedy. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but if you put all your chips on comedy your movie better be really funny, and I can’t say that this film had me laughing as much as it should have. Most of the film’s humor is based on Gleeson’s character and his irreverent behavior. Boyle is a man without a filter; whenever a politically incorrect thought comes into his head he says it. If you challenge anything he says he just gets a confused look on his face and wonders what the big deal is. The thing is, there seems to be a method to his madness, at one point Everett says that he can’t tell if Boyle is really smart or really stupid. To me his behavior was interesting, perhaps even amusing, but I wouldn’t really call it “funny.”
It is perhaps odd that John Michael McDonagh chose to make Boyle the main focus of the film rather than Everett. The more conventional move would have been to tell the story from the perspective of the straight laced and more relatable character and to make the oddball more of a cipher. Frankly I think the conventional route might have been the better option here. Boyle is not a very easy person to watch a movie about and it’s pretty easy to lose patience with him. What’s more, the more time we spend with Boyle the more his act starts to wear and lose its ability to shock. The film also doesn’t work tremendously as a cop movie, with the central investigation being a rather straightforward drug trafficking case that it quickly stopped by a climactic shootout. Overall, The Guard feels like a very minor effort that only entertained sporadically.
**1/2 out of Four