Saturday 3 September 2011

Connemara Green: "The Guard"

With The Guard, the writer-director John Michael McDonagh, being the brother of your man who did In Bruges, has a certain degree of fun at the expense of the common-or-garden police procedural, by relocating it to rural Ireland and putting at its centre a figure simultaneously conventional and entirely his own man. This'll be Brendan Gleeson's Sergeant Gerry Boyle, a drinking, whoring Garda first observed wearily rousing himself from traffic duty to swipe several tabs of acid for himself from the scene of a road accident. Given that his superiors - either thick as thieves, or pigshit - genuinely seem to believe that the word "liquidated", within the Mafia context, means "put in a blender", Boyle remains Connemara's finest, using a mix of deductive instinct and street smarts to get his man, and taking a particular interest in pissing off anybody he happens to cross paths with. Just for the craic, as it were.

"I can't make out if you're motherfucking smart or motherfucking dumb," is his new partner's assessment of his methods, setting out the film's primary site of investigation: this is Don Cheadle's FBI agent Wendell Everett, unceremoniously dumped on the Emerald Isle to investigate an international drug-trafficking ring passing through the area. Not even this smartest of suits gets Boyle's respect: when Everett tells him of his privileged background, Boyle's initial thought is "I thought black people couldn't ski... or is that swimming?" From the way Boyle upbraids a junior colleague as "Barry O'Bama" for his liberal tendencies, it's clear The Guard is intended as a post-racial buddy movie: the Garda's jibes seem nothing more than genial wind-ups, coming from a position of no malevolence whatsoever. They're something to do on drizzly off-days.

The real issue McDonagh's film concerns itself with isn't racism ("I'm Irish," Boyle insists, "racism is part of my culture") but nationalism, and how much Americana has permeated (corrupted?) even the remotest parts of Ireland. A former IRA man (Pat Shortt, from the excellent Garage) turns up for a meeting wearing a ten-gallon hat; a local delinquent insists "yo' trippin' if you think you're gonna search me"; Boyle finally meets his nemesis (Liam Cunningham) face-to-face in an American diner. What The Guard amounts to is a sly retort to the forces of globalisation: as counterpoints, McDonagh smuggles into the background of scenes hurling, Gaelic speakers, traditional Irish folk music, even a stray Daniel O'Donnell poster, which is about as Celtic as it gets.

You can therefore see why the film has been the success it has in its native land. Further to it is the characterisation of Boyle as an Irish everyman: a rogue with a thoughtful, poetic streak, someone who loves a pint and a hoor, but also has shelves full of well-thumbed paperbacks and Chet Baker CDs. It's Boyle's discrimination (in every sense of the word) that makes him the shrewd lawman he is, making him better able to understand the philosophical position his adversaries occupy: he discusses Gogol and Dostoyevsky with his terminally ill mother (Fionnula Flanagan), even as his quarry tests his underlings on the differences between Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, and the crimelord's driver (Mark Strong) finds his own existential despair at the fundamental meaninglessness of his task dispelled by the excitement of Boyle's pursuit.

Also in the shake-up is the very Irish business of telling tales and making mischief, determined as McDonagh appears to be to subvert the workings of the police procedural at every turn: one local kid just turns up his nose when Cheadle reveals he's not from the Bureau's behavioural science unit. (Everyone wants to be on CSI these days.) Once you spot the mechanics of this joke, The Guard becomes a mite less funny: where In Bruges surprised from scene to scene, often making the viewer laugh in spite of themselves, the other McDonagh's film adheres to its own kind of deconstructive formula, lapsing, in its final moments, into the kind of meta-speak that obscures the characters and confirms this is ultimately a writer's piece above all else.

The one joke that keeps on giving, however, is Gleeson, whose doleful presence can elicit laughs simply by standing stock still and looking grumpily out into the Connemara drizzle. The screenplay thankfully gives him more opportunities to come to life and match wits with those around him, pitting him against not just Cheadle's pugnacious foil, but a couple of good-time girls, and a milkshake which, consumed too quickly, hits the Garda with a sudden and terrible headache; the character's knowledge of human weakness would seem to derive from the fact that he, too, is an individual corruptible - human - in all the right ways. Never mind importing American supercops to repair Broken Britain: someone should send Sergeant Gerry Boyle over here to sort us all out, like.

The Guard is on release in selected cinemas.

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