Irish import The Guard is a familiar black cop/white cop comic thriller, transported to an exotic-to-us locale and dotted with contemporary indie-flick tics. It's the feature-film debut of writer-director John Michael McDonagh, whose younger brother — writer-director Martin McDonagh — scored a minor hit with 2008's crime yarn In Bruges, a film similar in theme and tone.
Like In Bruges, this shaggy-dog character study/police procedural stars veteran Irish actor Brendan Gleeson, here playing rough-edged, aging, small-town cop Sgt. Gerry Boyle, whose days spent sampling drugs taken off car-crash victims and frolicking with hookers masks latent intelligence and integrity, which makes him a marginalized figure among his co-workers.
Gerry's comfortable routine changes when his village is invaded first by a crew of murderous drug smugglers and then by a straight-laced FBI agent (Don Cheadle) on their trail.
Cheadle's otherwise inessential Wendell Everett is a surrogate through which the audience is encouraged to find Gerry's brusque political incorrectness endearing, despite his casual racism. Even before Cheadle shows up, Gerry utters vaguely offensive one-liners about Detroit and Barack Obama, and he "apologizes" to his American visitor by explaining, "I'm Irish, sir, racism is part of me culture." Gerry's happy-hooker associates serve much the same redeeming function, minus the racial component.
In content, The Guard evokes another minor but lasting cult film, 1983's Local Hero, in which Peter Riegert plays an American businessman negotiating an eccentric Scottish village, as well as the father of all salt-and-pepper cop movies, 1967's In the Heat of the Night.
Stylistically, however, it's pure post-Tarantino: sardonic spaghetti Western and retro-kitsch ("Ode to Billie Joe") music cues, copious blood and bullets, self-consciously clever and referential dialogue (crooks debate poets and philosophers; a beat cop mentions Fellini).
As shopworn as this crash of genres and tones is, The Guard works better than it should. Credit Gleeson, who carries the film as the gifted underachiever Gerry, rolling his eyes and issuing wisecracks at his less-gifted colleague and bosses.
There's a subplot where Gerry visits his ill mother at her retirement home, and their conversations are full of outré material. The mother makes a "that's what she said"-style orgy joke. Discussing one of his cases, she muses, "Cocaine? I could do with some cocaine; they say it gives you great get-up-and-go." This could be lousy, easy comedy, but it isn't played that way. Like Gleeson, Fionnula Flanagan, as the mother, doesn't hit any wrong notes. There's real companionship and familiarity between this mother and son, who bond over liquor, literature (she's reading the Russians; he's not a fan), and their shared deadpan sense of humor and suffer-no-fools misanthropy.
Like most of The Guard, these scenes shouldn't work as well as they do but manage to find moments of truth and idiosyncratic humor in predictable material. If nothing else, this minor pleasure certainly has more life in it than most big-screen options available during the traditionally fallow weeks of late summer.