“Go to America, to your appropriate fucking Barack Obama.”
These are “The Guard” Gerry Boyle’s (Brendan Gleeson) words to a young cop as they uncover a dead body in a cabin by the side of the road, and as the young cop suggests that Gerry’s methods may be…inappropriate. So begins The Guard, writer-director John Michel McDonagh’s riff on the police procedural buddy-comedy. The problems with Seargent Boyle, a curmudgeonly cop with a sense of humor on the Mickey Spillane side of political correctness, only stack up from there: his Mother is dying, he’s slouching on his duties, he drinks too much, and he’s a bit fond of call girls. But the larger problem is not with him, it is with McDonagh, who can’t seem to decide what riff he’s trying to do, or what a true buddy comedy entails.
Agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle) from the FBI soon enters, unintentionally offering Boyle a chance to get some real work done. He has tracked a group of cocaine smugglers to the Irish coast and needs the cooperation of the local police force. Boyle is more interested in cracking racist jokes in Everett’s presence and sitting in the local pub drinking himself away than actually helping solve the case. But like it or not, he gets dragged in to it, mainly by virtue of having discovered a presumed-living member of the group dead before anybody else. He doesn’t quite know what to make of the highly professional Everett, but neither Everett, nor we, know what to make of Boyle the whole time. Is he an actual racist, or just a nutty subversive? Does he really not give a damn about tracking down hoodlums, or does he simply give a damn in his own, strangely methodical way? As Everett sums it up, is he incredibly smart, or incredibly stupid?
McDonagh leaves us to decide these answers for ourselves and instead homes in on the theme of American attitudes versus the attitudes of the Irish. Everett is can-do and spirited, while Boyle is cynical and complacent. Everett is polite and censored while the two concepts don’t quite occur to Boyle. But if this is meant to be a broad satire of two cultures—or maybe just one—it doesn’t have solid enough groundwork. McDonagh simply doesn’t appear to have a thorough understanding of his chosen genre, or even what that genre is. The actual police procedural—the sleuthing, the clues, the suspenseful pursuits—are given far too little time, either because McDonagh hasn’t watched enough cop movies or because he believes farcical humor alone justifies a farce (Or is it a satire? Or a buddy picture?) As such, there are laughs, but as a writer, McDonagh does not appear to have much talent beyond one-liners. And his mistake of turning every character that pops up in to a sort of grand, Swiftian comic icon eventually wears on the viewer. These icons include a young boy with a pink bicycle who won’t stay out of the road, an opportunistic photographer and an eastern European woman named Gabriela (Katarina Kas, an old-fashioned beauty), grieving for her cop husband who mysteriously vanished. Each of these people are forced to serve the comic tone of the film so heavily, that The Guard starts to look like some post-apocalyptic movie about an Ireland where humanity has been reduced to bitter, redundant humor.
|(Don Cheadle and Brendan Gleeson in The Guard/2011)|
Sure, there are laughs. And there’s plenty going on in The Guard to distract us from whatever we don’t agree with. There’s commentary on rural Irish disdain for the cities, semi-serious introductions of death and depression, and striking vistas of the Irish coast; clumps of the greenest green layered in fog. But we’ll need another filmmaker to revisit this same territory with a sharper comedic balance, and a greater understanding of how to tell a story loudly and well. Could the seldom heard-from Bruce Robinson show up here sometime? Or the American Christopher Guest? Never mind; for tht time being, let’s go back to our appropriate fucking Barack Obama.