You know, when Werner Herzog did that unauthorized, batshit-crazy reimagining of Abel Ferrara’s NC-17-rated crime drama Bad Lieutenant a couple of years ago, people who saw it thought it was untoppable. After all, Herzog’s movie had Nicolas Cage doing his trademark, over-the-top shtick as a manic cop going down a rabbit hole of depravity and self-destruction. (If you haven’t seen it, you must check it out, if only to see Cage threaten two old ladies at gunpoint. Now, that may not sound funny to you, but it puts me in hysterics every time.)
As I watched The Guard, the feature-length directing debut from screenwriter John Michael McDonagh (Ned Kelly), I was thinking that this was another unofficial retelling of Ferrara’s film. However, the amoral, hopelessly hedonistic lawman at the center of this film is not that bad a bloke. In fact, despite his proclivities for booze, hookers, and the occasional tab of acid, you would want this cop on your side. The cop in question is Sgt. Gerry Boyle (Brendan Gleeson), a veteran policeman who patrols a quiet, quirky village in Ireland’s Connemara region. The sort of seen-it-all officer who doesn’t even flinch when he sees a car full of drunken teenagers crash to their deaths, Boyle is also a smartass ready to bust the balls of any cocky authority figure who threatens his jurisdiction.
Enter Wendell Everett (co-executive producer Don Cheadle), an FBI agent who hits Ireland looking for a half-billion-dollar shipment of cocaine set to be picked up by a roving band of smugglers (Liam Cunningham, David Wilmot, and an amusingly ornery Mark Strong). Once Everett starts snooping around his community, Boyle starts yanking his chain, baiting him with racist taunts (“I only thought black lads were drug dealers!”) and put-downs of the U.S. of A.
At this point, you’re probably wondering why one would even consider watching a movie about a no-account, racist, America-hating Irish asshole. Well, for one, it stars Gleeson, who I’ve yet to see give a bad performance in anything, including the not-dissimilar In Bruges, which was directed by McDonagh’s younger brother, the playwright Martin McDonagh (who gets an executive producer credit here). Gleeson once again uses his gruff-but-relatable, brogue-heavy burliness to his full advantage, making this lout an admirable good guy you’ll eventually root for. But, until then, he mostly kills time (and wins audience sympathy) by hanging out with his dying, equally brash mother (Fionnula Flanagan) — that is, when he’s not having threesomes with hookers.
More offbeat than dark-hearted, and obviously drawing inspiration from the crude buddy-cop movies and eccentric acid Westerns of the ’70s, The Guard is a black Irish comedy where both cops and criminals are more bored than content with their positions in life. Much like its protagonist, the film appears to enjoy taking the piss out of its audience, giving them a cynical yet cheeky neo-noir that tweaks the usual conventions and comes up with a story that may be familiar, but is told in fresh fashion.
In the end, you can say that The Guard is the less deranged, more comical equivalent to Bad Lieutenant. It’s not as insanely ferocious as Herzog’s film, but as far as being well done, savagely funny, and ballsy as all-get-out, The Guard doesn’t talk shit — it is the shit.