Don Cheadle and Brendan Gleeson create comedy in cultural 'exchange' as they star in 'The Guard.'

McDonagh Finds Success in Family Path with 'The Guard'

Dennis Harvey August 4, 2011

Fabulous success by one family member—particularly of the show business type—tends to induce similar aspirations in their relatives. Movie stars beget little wannabe movie stars, pop stars ditto. Even literature or visual arts can turn into a biological franchise.

London-raised, Irish-heritage playwright Martin McDonagh became the enfant terrible rage of international stages with such plays as The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Lieutenant of Inishmore, then a successful firsttime scenarist-director with 2008's hit In Bruges. It should surprise no one that his older brother John Michael McDonagh has now written and directed his own first feature, The Guard. Or that it should very much echo little bro's blackly comedic tenor, and star his frequent collaborator Brendan Gleeson to boot.

To give John Michael credit, however, he'd apparently toiled in the salt mines of screenwriting without luck for some time (his Australian outlaw biopic script Ned Kelly did get produced in 2003, starring Heath Ledger) before winning an Oscar for his first short film (2005's Six Shooter, currently on YouTube). On the evidence of that 30-minute directorial debut and The Guard, he's got his own antic, macabre sensibility. If it's a sensibility that has a great deal in common with his better-known sibling's, well, perhaps that's something that runs in the family.

In Bruges was McDonagh (Martin that is) Lite—the extreme Irish miserabilism and appalling (yet funny) gallows humor leavened to suit a cheerfully crass, twisty crime caper whose lexicon of bad behaviors were set against Europe's most pristene storybook-village setting. The Guard is very like it; the depth of horror lurking within little brother's stage works doesn't figure in John Michael's absurdist universe, where violent deeds are like grotesque punchlines to the characters' neverending, profanely hilarious gab.

It's way too early to guess if this McDonagh will prove to have range beyond being a gifted in-joke pastiche artist with bottomless pop-culture knowledge and a real flair for flamboyant dialogue, a la Quentin Tarantino. But as with Tarantino, that's more than enough gift to float a couple hours' snarky mayhem.

Here the hulking Gleeson plays Sgt. Gerry Boyle, a small-town police veteran patrolling the scenic byways of coastal County Galway. But this fellow's thin veneer of smarmy old-school charm barely distracts from the poisonous chewy nougat beneath. A loner who loves being around people so he can repel them, he spews racial, sexual and miscellaneous offensive invective with such deadpan recklessness you know he's not a true hater so much as a man who simply relishes pissing off everyone around him. Even his coworkers can't stand him.

When the discovery of a local ne'er-do-well's corpse points toward an international cocaine smuggling operation, this sleepy environ gets a sudden influx of more dead bodies, three deadly syndicate enforcers (Liam Cunningham, Mark Strong, David Wilmot), and one FBI agent (Don Cheadle as Wendell Everett) who's just the humorless dart board Boyle's verbal arrows have been waiting for.

Their queasy partnership gets off to a poor start—naturally Boyle drops wee nuggets of insensitivity at every opportunity—but the by-the-book Yank grudgingly learns to appreciate his guide's unconventional knowhow. They even bond, after a fashion, via a pub bender allowing both Agent and actor Cheadle to let their hair down and shake it all around.

The Guard has bloodshed, of course, but not really much action until its finale. That's just as well, because while McDonagh's design team does handsome work, as a director he doesn't show much aptitude for chases, shootouts, and other standard thriller devices for physical excitement.

This doesn't matter so much as you'd expect, however, because the movie uses genre peril and intrigue merely as an excuse for the kind of smart-ass writerly bravado that can annoy when not done (and acted) very, very well.

Fortunately, McDonagh does have that knack, and his actors could hardly be better, with the always-arresting Gleeson giving a master class in acting that never breaks a sweat yet delivers each nuance with whiplash force. The Guard can seem too clever at times, congratulating itself on an impudence that has thugs quoting Nietzsche one moment and soundtrack-pipes John Denver the next. Like the bratty classroom kid who insists on showing off all the time, it's a movie you'd want to spank if it weren't, in fact, often just as smart-ass funny as it thinks it is.