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The Guard

If there was ever a time that theatrical movie trailers were made in such a way as to be considered an art of their own, that era seems to have gone the way of the handwritten letter.   Or the letter, for that matter.   If you've seen the trailer for The Guard, you've heard its main character, Sergeant Gerry Boyle (Brendan Gleeson) spout the likes of, "I thought only black lads were drug dealers...and Mexicans."  That decided bit of political incorrectness spoken to visiting FBI agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle), who happens to be a black man.  Later, while the two are discussing Everett's privileged upbringing back in the states, "You know, summer in the Hamptons, skiing in Aspen," Gerry lobs back,  "I thought black people couldn't ski...or is that swimming?"  The unconventional sergeant had earlier explained away his behavior at the briefing where he first met Everett,  "I'm Irish sir, racism is part of my culture."  Of course, you must imagine all these statements accented with a brogue on the part of Gleeson as thick as peat.  The trailer makes all of this look like a bad Irish-American version of 48 Hours.  It's hard to know what to make of Gerry.  As he and the FBI agent are driving down one of those narrow Irish roads one evening, Wendell, frustrated by yet again by Gerry's offhand manner, says, "I can't tell if you're really motherfucking dumb, or really motherfucking smart."  Fortunately, both Gerry and The Guard are really are not so easily categorized; something, as it turns out, much more motherfucking unpredictable.

The welcome presence of Gleeson, along with the profane, fairly cracked parallel universe of The Guard, are more than a little reminiscent of In Bruges.  That film also was also preceded by a hopeless trailer.  Irish hit men in quaint old Bruges!  And hookers!  And a dwarf!!   The two-plus minute jumble of images and dialog grave In Bruges the promise of one of the more mind-bogglingly stupid films of all time.   However, if you have seen Martin McDonough's 2008 film, you know that to be anything but the case.  In Bruges, with it's admixture of violence, soulfulness and conversations strange but yet somehow true, was one of the more original films widely distributed in recent years.

Well, the McDonough boys are back at it.   This time, it's Martin's brother, John Michael McDonough writing and directing The Guard and providing Mr. Gleeson with another rich role.  On this occasion, Gleeson plays someone on the right side of the law, but that blue line gets stretched mighty thin at times.  The mood is set quite early as a car careens down a road in Gerry's jurisdiction.  A few lads are blaring music (as it turns out, part of varied score by Calexico, that runs from Morricone-like Spaghetti Western flourishes to the swaggering guitar rock and rap of the opening sequence) and drinking, resulting in the predictable weave down the road.  We see Gerry's fleshy, phlegmatic countenance as the car zooms through his field of vision.  There's only a slight change of expression when we and the sergeant hear the crash a moment later.  Gerry calmly arrives at the accident scene and goes through the motions of checking a couple of the strewn bodies for a pulse.  Clearly, no one has survived the wreck.   He then reaches into the pocket of one of the unfortunate young men and pulls of a small bag of drugs. After stating, "I don't think yer mammy would be too pleased about that now," tosses the bag to the side of the road.  But it's not simply the noble gesture it first appears.  The sergeant, as we find out, has a taste for drugs himself.  He places a tab of acid on his tongue and for just a split second, the image of a smiley face appears on the screen.  "It's a beautiful fuckin' day, " says Sergeant Gerry Boyle.   Welcome to the world of The Guard.   Those looking for a more genteel art house experience might want to check out The Hedgehog, playing down the hall in theater five....

What brings Sergeant Gerry and Agent Everett together at that contentious briefing is the incursion into Galway of a drug ring seeking a port at which they can land a ship loaded with cocaine.  Gerry, like the other local police in attendance, sees the mug shots of the trio of thugs leading the invasion.  The three  hoodlums, two Irishmen and an Englishman, look appropriately dubious, but these are not quite your average representatives of the drug trade.  We first see them driving by night, having a discussion about their favorite philosopher.  Liam, he of the most comedically disheveled mug shot and the admitted sociopath of the group, puts forth Nietzsche as his choice.  But this is the strange, verbally rich world of The Guard and these are some decidedly bookish criminals; the mere dropping of the German philosopher's name will not do.  He's challenged by the eldest of the crew, Francis (Liam Cunningham), who sits in the back seat with a tome and accompanying book light, to produce a good quotation.   The best the poor sociopath can do is "What doesn't kill us...", but he's shouted down for coming up with a line everyone knows.   Only later in the conversation, after the lineage of Bertrand Russell is settled, does he come up something to satisfying the tough crowd:  "You will never get the crowd to cry Hosanna until you ride into town on an ass."  That's a good one, admit his fellow criminals.  Indeed.

Some unlikely lads.   The bookish bad guys in The Guard.
The dialog in The Guard, whether spoken between the cops, the drug traffickers, or volleyed between the criminal element and law enforcement - again, an amusingly fine line here -  frequently crackles with the energy of conversation in Tarrantino films with the added benefit of a good literary education.

The film's bookish tendencies are also shown off in the first exchange between Gerry and his dying mother (an excellent Finnula Flanagan).   She's a resident in some sort of elder care or hospice facility.  A terse conversation between Gerry and the director makes clear enough the good woman's fate before Gerry goes outside to join his mother on a bench.  She's reading the Goncharov novel, Oblomov, whose cover is briefly flashed on the screen.  After giving his mother a flask, which we can only assume is full of Irish whiskey, the two briefly discuss Russian literature.  Gerry doesn't care for the Russians, as they take too long getting to the point.  What about Dostoevsky? asks his mother.   "He's the worst offender," replies Gerry.   He does own that Gogol is alright.

Much as it might please the liberal arts majors in the crowd, all of this name dropping would be to no effect or worse, clangingly pretentious, if these intellectual markers didn't just help indicate character but were somehow supposed to instantly define them and the movie as something literate and worthwhile.  What McDonough manages to get across with economy is that these are people with inner lives, smart enough to appreciate or even dismiss Russian literature.  So it goes with the subject of the impending death of Gerry's mother.  Perhaps too irreverent for some, the Irish are able to execute their dance with mortality with more candor and humor than most.  A bracing mixture of the sacred and profane run through Gerry and the film, yet another thing in common with In Bruges.  

Each of these films by the McDonough brothers also has its little person.  There is the aforementioned dwarf who's part of that highly memorable, drug-fueled scene and conversation in the midst of In Bruges.  With The Guard, it's a child...of sorts.  Young Eugene Moloney (Michael Og Lane) is first seen  near a crime scene on a pink bike with training wheels, a scruffy dog tethered to the back.  Boy and dog merely drift across the screen; it's unclear who's pulling whom. Eugene is more Shakespearean fool than child, demonstrating an uncanny knack for appearing at key places and times, always with something strange to say.  His garish motley comes in the form of one track suit or another, mirroring the color fields and backdrops before which Gerry often appears, or in which he's once bathed (while playing a cops and robbers video game), all of this incongruous color adding to the film's slightly surreal undercurrent.

Perhaps The Guard's best stealth joke comes first from Eugene. The nattily dressed Agent Everett is having no luck at all canvassing the area around Connemara, his efforts hampered by the fact that a)he's an outsider, b)he's black and c)he doesn't speak Gaelic in an area in which many of the residents do.  Eugene has no such inhibitions when the two meet near a football pitch.  When the agent tells him he's from the FBI, the kid asks "From the Behavioral Sciences Division?!"  Agent Everett says that, no, he's with narcotics.  Both man and sort-of-child evince their disappointment.  The dead-pan is later echoed by Gerry's mother, who asks the same question about the visiting agent when Gerry is telling her about the case.   As if the Behavioral Sciences Division holds a special, sexy cache among the Irish.  One of many touches of the absurd that McDonough weaves into his script.      

One might desire more for the nimble Cheadle than playing straight man to Gleeson, but it's a minor grievance to take with The Guard.  Cheadle, as ever, fares well with what he's given.  Ultimately, both the friction between Agent Everett and Sergeant Boyle, as well as the eventual respect seem credible for the sometimes profane candor that emanates from McDonough's script and is made to sing, if not harmonize, by the two men.  Gleeson and Cheadle are good together because they don't easily fall into some buddy routine.  And this is, after all, The Guard, not 48 Hours: Port of Call, Connemara.  It was apparently a role written for Brendan Gleeson.  Sergeant Gerry Boyle is a man replete with contradiction.  Gleeson fills them out as fully as he does as the uniform he dons with such spaghetti-western-backed ceremony.          

Sergeant Gerry Boyle and a friend discussing ice cream headaches, the meaning  of "Ode to Billy Joe, " and lesser matters of life and death in The Guard.



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