The Guard - Brendan Gleeson
Sgt Gerry Boyle (Brendan Gleeson) © 2011 Sony Pictures Classics, Photo by Jonathan Hession

“I can’t tell if you’re really motherf***ing dumb, or really motherf***ing smart.” That’s how the perpetually exasperated American FBI agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle) describes the whoring, drug-abusing and hilariously deadpan Irish Sgt Gerry Boyle (Brendan Gleeson) in this appealingly offbeat and deliciously dark comedy.

Everett has arrived in Boyle’s very unwelcoming County Galway, Ireland, on the trail of international drug smugglers. But The Guard is a lot smarter and funnier than a typical fish-out-of-water buddy-cop flick. Although nowhere near as fast-paced or flashy, it’s more akin to Edgar Wright’s tongue-in-cheek Hot Fuzz than to anything that ever came out of Hollywood.

The Guard also shares a sardonic post-modern sensibility with movies such as Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. When corrupt policemen collecting a payoff ask the courier if the money’s all there, he replies in flabbergasted indignation that skimming any off the top “would defeat the whole purpose!”

The Guard - Sarah Greene and Dominique McElligott
Sinead Mulligan (Sarah Greene) and Aoife O’Carroll (Dominique McElligott) © 2011 Sony Pictures Classics

Writer/director John Michael McDonagh is the brother of playwright Martin McDonagh, who wrote and directed the brilliant In Bruges that starred Gleeson and Colin Farrell. Both McDonaghs share a talent for creating unique and fascinating characters who (as the saying goes) not only say funny things but say things funny. When Everett calls the casually insensitive Boyle racist for remarking that he thought all drug dealers were black, Boyle genially replies that racism is part of Ireland’s national culture.

When Boyle expresses astonishment to learn that there are gay members of the IRA, a gun runner very reasonably explains that they were needed in order for the group to infiltrate MI-5. And Boyle’s utter lack of self-consciousness about discussing everything from smoking crack to scratching crabs is endlessly endearing.

Excellent supporting characters include the intimidatingly badass Clive Cornell (Mark Strong), who refuses to help hide a dead body because his job description “didn’t include heavy lifting”; hitman Liam O’Leary (David Wilmot), who wants it known he is a sociopath but not a psychopath, even though he can’t recall the difference; Boyle’s terminally ill mother Eileen (Fionnula Flanagan), who still jokes about attending orgies; and a pair of genuinely happy hookers (Dominique McElligott and Sarah Greene).

McDonagh says the part of Boyle was not created specifically for Gleeson, but it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing the sarcastic, self-involved but ultimately stalwart cynic as believably as Gleeson does. And as Gleeson says about how well his unforgettable character is written, “Anybody who didn’t take that part should lock himself in a small room and shoot himself.”

As of mid-2011, The Guard is one of the most enjoyable films of the year.

[Rating: 4.5]

James Dawson

Jim is Film Review Online's Los Angeles based reviewer.