"I can't tell if you're really motherfucking dumb or really motherfucking smart." So says FBI agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle) as he ponders the Irish police sergeant he has been partnered with in The Guard. Gerry Boyle (Brendan Gleeson) responds to the American's statement with an enigmatic smile and reveals nothing, keeping the audience similarly in the dark regarding his true nature. Is Boyle good cop or bad cop? Is he slow on the uptake or simply playing it that way? Sergeant Boyle is not averse to pilfering drugs from a crime scene or doing shady deals, and he enjoys the company of prostitutes on his days off, but he might just be the only honest cop in the county. He is a mass of contradictions, and the perfectly cast Gleeson keeps his cards very close to his chest.
The question posed by Everett is easier to answer when considering the film itself, however. The Guard is very motherfucking smart, having been written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, whose brother Martin made In Bruges, which shares a similar tone and sense of humour. The film takes place in Galway and when we first meet Boyle, we quickly see him as a feckless and eccentric soul, who amuses himself in quiet moments by teasing eager new recruit Aiden (Rory Keenan) and his desire to do things by the book. Boyle's brash demeanour is certainly startling to Everett, who has arrived in Ireland following a lead on a major drugs shipment, and they get off on the wrong foot almost immediately. "I thought only black lads were drug dealers." Boyle suggests as he watches an FBI presentation of the three white suspects. "I'm Irish" he protests, apparently startled by the angry reaction his comment has provoked, "racism's part of our culture."
McDonagh has some fun setting a tale of drugs, murder and corruption against the incongruous rural backdrop. One scene finds Everett walking the country roads alone, with the locals eyeing this stranger suspiciously and refusing to cooperate with his enquiries ("There's a black man at the door!" a woman shouts in subtitled Gaelic when he knocks), which is the kind of sequence that's recognisable from so many fish-out-water comedies. McDonagh follows the familiar narrative template of the buddy cop movie too – a straight-up detective and his unconventional sidekick having a relationship that develops from mistrust and animosity to camaraderie – but he gets away with the unoriginal format thanks to some sharp writing. The Guard puts a sly spin on numerous scenes; after one tense confrontation with the chief villain of the piece (Liam Cunningham), Boyle ends up with his head in his hands – not through despair, but a headache induced by drinking his milkshake too fast. Amid the humour, McDonagh also crafts some fine dramatic scenes too, such as a couple of warm and witty exchanges between Boyle and his ailing mother (Fionnula Flanagan), or the compassion he shows to a young widow.
The director can be guilty of overwriting, however. The three drug dealers (Cunningham, Mark Strong and David Wilmot) are given dialogue that feels a little strained, with Cunningham discussing philosophy while Strong bemoans his dissatisfaction with the business he's in and Wilmot is stuck with the thinnest role as the most psychotic of the trio. Still, complaining about a film being a little overwritten seems churlish when it arrives in an era of comedy films that barely seem to be written at all.
And whatever the minor flaws in The Guard (McDonagh's direction can be a bit slack, failing to sustain a sense of momentum at crucial moments) it's worth seeing for one very big reason – Brendan Gleeson. In a performance that's rich in comic timing, subtlety and complexity, Gleeson provides us with a vivid and memorable characterisation – Ireland's own Bad Lieutenant – and he brilliantly shifts our perspective on Gerry Boyle, moving from feckless joker to heroic figure; an unlikely Gary Cooper standing for what he believes in and facing down the crooks. He does all of this while retaining that essential mystery at the centre of Gerry Boyle. Smart or dumb – who can say for sure? Either way, he's a fascinating and hugely endearing character to spend time with.