Sundance 2011: THE GUARD Review

     January 29, 2011


If you don’t know who Brendan Gleeson is, then you’re missing out.  You may be a perfectly nice person and I’m not asking you to know every actor, but John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard is yet more proof that it’s time for Gleeson to become a guy you recognize based off name alone.  Not “Mad-Eye Moody”.  Not “Colin Farrell’s friend in In Bruges.”  Not “the kind father in 28 Days Later.”  Not “One of the bad guys in Troy.” (Although that last one is simply because no one should use Troy as a frame of reference for anything).  People need to know that Gleeson is one of the finest actors today and if they go see The Guard, they’ll understand why.  The plot relies a little too heavily on coincidence, but it’s a fun flick filled with sharp dialogue, an aggressive style, and yet another phenomenal performance from Gleeson.

Gleeson play Sergeant Gerry Boyle, an Irish cop who is a mess of delightful contradictions.  Gerry takes drugs off car crash victims, solicits hookers, but he isn’t corrupt, and it’s unknown if he’s smart playing stupid, actually stupid, or some mixture of both.  After investigating a brutal murder, Gerry is introduced to FBI agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle).  It turns out that the victim was working with drug traffickers (played by Mark Strong, Liam Cunningham, and David Wilmot) who are about to make a cocaine deal worth an estimated “street value” of $500 million (or as Gerry’s dim-witted superior notes to his officers, “That’s half-a-billion, boys.”).  The partnership between Gerry and Wendell gets off to a poor start as Gerry asks Wendell, “I thought only black guys were drug traffickers.”  The two begin an uneasy friendship that skillfully avoids the well-worn buddy-cop dynamic.  The Guard really isn’t a movie with two leads.  The show belongs to Gleeson and he does marvels with it.


It takes both comic timing and gravitas to pull of the role of Boyle.  As Wendell notes, “I can’t decide if you’re really, really smart or really, really dumb.”  On paper, the character could easily come off as too contrived, but Gleeson makes it all fit together.  The film makes it clear that Boyle is rather intelligent, but it also makes him say incredibly stupid things like his racist comments towards Wendell or taking his photo with hookers.  It’s also difficult to gauge how much he cares.   The film opens with him taking an acid stamp off a deceased car crash victim, partially because he wants to get high and partially so the boy’s mother won’t know the victim had drugs on him.  The jumble of misanthropy, romanticism, and pragmatism all blend together beautiful because Gleeson knows how to balance the comedy and drama of his character.  It’s easily one of the best performances I saw at Sundance this year.

McDonagh also deserves credit for writing some terrific dialogue not only for Gerry but for all of the characters.  Almost all of the Irish characters are racist and bigoted but it doesn’t come off as mean-spirited or ugly.  It’s just a matter-of-fact tone that works towards creating some sharp comedy.  The script is helped by McDonagh’s stylized direction that thankfully doesn’t go hyperactive but helps some of the more ridiculous aspects, like the erudite, Nietzsche-loving drug traffickers, fit more naturally into the story.  The only aspect where McDonagh struggles is in his plotting.  Too much of the movie is reliant on coincidence to the point where Doyle finds a bag of guns floating up the river.  The origin of the guns is never explained (or if it was, I couldn’t understand it through the thick Irish accents), but of course they come into play later in the movie.


There are plenty of reasons to like The Guard.  The dialogue is sharp, the direction is energetic, and it’s a fun mash-up of the fish-out-of-water and buddy cop comedies that doesn’t fit neatly into either of those two categories.  But the main reason to like The Guard is the brilliant performance from Brendan Gleeson.  Try to remember his name.

Rating: B+

For all of our coverage of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, click here. Also, here are links to all of my Sundance reviews so far:

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