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Friday, 15 July 2011

An Emperor Only Partially Clothed: Review of The Guard (dir. John Michael McDonagh, starring Brendan Gleeson)

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Good Irish films are like buses in that you wait for ages for one to come along, but that's where the similarity ends - what usually happens is, when the film does come along, it turns out to be rubbish. The Guard has got a lot of positive advance press, a big hit at Sundance, apparently. Writer-director John Michael McDonagh is certainly confident in his movie, otherwise he wouldn't risk such comments as: "A lot of Irish films fall by the wayside, mainly because they're rubbish."

The Guard obviously invites comparisons with In Bruges, one of the last Irish films to be greeted with any widespread enthusiasm: both are comedy noir, violent and irreverent, and both star Brendan Gleeson. And, of course, it was McDonagh's famous playright brother Martin McDonagh who wrote and directed In Bruges. Gleeson's character is on the other side of the law here - he's a guard, duh - but otherwise he's a similar character. He's a maverick cop, a renegade, a loose cannon - the only type of cop they make films about. He's at once debauched and sanctified - he likes hookers and coke, but he can't be bribed, and he can discuss Dostoyevsky. The film works by playing off the two sides of Gleeson's Sergeant Boyle, using Gleeson's lived-in and expressive face to get across the ambiguities of the character.

The other main character is less ambiguous, Don Cheadle's cardboard cut-out straight man, FBI agent Wendell Everett, who has no life of his own beyond reaction with surprise- amusement- exasperation or whatever to Boyle's shenanigans. Boyle's mother is played by respected actress Fionnuala Flanagan, and her character also lacks substance, completely based on the rude-remarks-are-funny-when-made-by-old-people idea. Not original, and Flanagan doesn't deliver the orgy and drug-taking jokes with much gusto. Also not original is the scumbag-crooks-who-discuss-weighty-intellectual-matters idea, which comes in in the portrayal of the drug dealers, who we find discussing Schopenhauer and Neitzsche, or at least quoting them, though the suspicion is it's just name-dropping, as nothing relevant to either of those philosophers is actually said. The intellectual name-dropping, both by the crooks and by Boyle, comes across as half-baked, as at no point do any of them evince any real familiarity with the subjects they're talking about.

The most jarring moment for me came with Boyle's response to being called a fool by Everett: "You didn't know people in the West of Ireland speak Irish, and I'm the fool!" I submit that no person from the West of Ireland would ever make the general statement that "people in the West of Ireland speak Irish", simply because it's not true.

Then there's the end. The wishy-washy, nothing-y, lazy ending. I suppose if you wanted to be polite you could call the ending "ambiguous", but I don't, so I'll say it: the ending was rubbish. It didn't cohere with the rest of the film. The film wasn't set up in such a way as to make such an ending acceptable. It was a real damp squib, ending not with a bang but with a whimper.

Looking back over my review, I may have given the impression that I disliked The Guard. Damn, I always do that. In fact, it was a generally enjoyable watch, some nice dialogue, excellent central performance by Brendan Gleeson. Worth seeing, yes. But not The Great Irish Movie, or a great Irish movie, or a very memorable movie. Some work on the script could, I think, have made this a considerably better film. Some less facile characterisations for all the characters bar Sergeant Boyle would have helped. But Gleeson pulls it through, and having just been awarded funding for his adaptation of Flann O'Brien's At Swim-Two-Birds, it could be an excellent year for this great actor (I wonder who he's playing in At Swim. The Uncle, I suppose). But I digress. I hereby award The Guard 7\10.

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