Gerry Boyle (Gleeson), an unconventional policeman in the west of Ireland, investigates a seemingly random murder. FBI agent Wendell Everett (Cheadle) arrives in Galway to mount a large-scale operation against a well-organised drug-smuggling ring. At first irritated by Gerry's manner, Everett is surprised by the garda's canniness as he connects the murder to the drug case.
Kept busy as a support in big, international films, playing a Harry Potter eccentric or a Troy toga patriarch, Brendan Gleeson is a star character actor in Ireland. In Bruges, written and directed by Martin McDonagh, showed a film could profitably be built around his baggy, clear-eyed disappointment, especially if he gets reams of barbed, whimsical, profane, brutally funny dialogue. The Guard, written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, Martin’s brother, is another blend of shaggy-dog story and genre picture, giving Gleeson a lawman role as strong as the gangster parts of In Bruges and The General. It’s a rare film you come out of hoping for a series with the same star/ character, though it’s also a perfect one-off and doesn’t quite end the way you expect.
Gleeson’s garda, Gerry Boyle, is a cross between Father Ted and the Bad Lieutenant. We meet him at the site of a stupid car crash, ticking off the corpses of joy-riders, but appropriating their drugs for his own consumption. He’s a dutiful if indulgent son to his terminally ill mother (Fionnula Flanagan) in a sub-plot most films would turn maudlin but which is a delight here. The kind of grown-up kid who’d visit Disneyland on his own, Gerry spends his day off with friendly Dublin ‘whooers’ dressed as fetish policewomen and makes polite, interesting conversation with the worst hard-men to put off the moment when he has to fight. He’s also a detective with Columbo-level insight born of acute observation of human nature, a fund of trivial knowledge and a stubborn streak of can’t-be-bothered-to-go-on-the-fiddle integrity in a region of the world where everybody else has decided to fill their pockets and shut their eyes.
The plot is standard, though the viewpoint is unusual. Conventionally, as a supporting character points out, this would be a Hollywood fish-out-of-water cop story with the FBI hotshot as hero. Here, straight-arrow Obama-era Fed Don Cheadle — who keeps having to tell disappointed people he’s not from the behavioural science unit and is just after drugs — manfully plays foil to Gleeson, who puts his hand up during a briefing to question the street value of a drugs haul (“I don’t know what street you buy your coca-ine on, but it certainly isn’t the street I buy my coca-ine on”) and genially responds to a reprimand with, “I’m Irish, racism is part of my culture.” Gerry isn’t really a racist, but one of nature’s contrarians, instinctively puncturing the posing of police and crooks alike, joshing a subordinate for talking like a cop show, chatting with the Volkswagen-driving chubby cowboy who represents the IRA (“Didn’t know you had gay lads in the IRA.” “To be sure, it was the only way to infiltrate the MI5”) and breaking off an exchange of menace with an arch-criminal (Liam Cunningham) to muse on the meaning of Bobby Gentry’s Ode To Billie Joe.
Gleeson commands the film like someone who doesn’t care about all the awards he ought to win (“You don’t get a medal for coming fourth in the Olympics”), but McDonagh has the knack of not writing a single conventional character or scene. Everyone gets great material, and Mark Strong and David Wilmot spin secondary bad-guy roles into relishable turns (Strong is funny about police corruption, Wilmot a sad-eyed killer who knows it won’t turn out well).
Among the most purely entertaining films of the year, which cuts its laughter with a dose of Celtic melancholy. It still delivers cop/action requirements - shoot-outs, revenges, daring deeds - and chances are, we'll be quoting lines from this forever.