The Guard: Prejudice and Xenophobia Can Be Fun!

August 03, 2011

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The Guard: Prejudice and Xenophobia Can Be Fun!

Perhaps no movie this year generates more concussive laughter from audiences than The Guard. This low-budget, highbrow Irish comedy stars redheaded character actor Brendan Gleeson as a small-town cop in County Galway in the tranquil West of Ireland. Smart, cultured, lazy, and mischievous to the point of maliciousness, Sergeant Gerry Boyle of the Garda is bored, especially by his chief duty: pulling over reckless youngfellas. Because almost every road in Connacht is lined with thick rock walls piled up by farmers looking for some place to stow the stones that litter their fields, the West of Ireland isn’t an ideal setting for drunk driving. But that doesn’t diminish its popularity.

The Guard opens with a car full of sozzled louts roaring past Sgt. Boyle’s speed trap. When his police cruiser unexpectedly fails to race after them, the camera zooms in on Gleeson’s deadpan face, with his eyebrows raised an eighth of an inch at his fellow man’s stupidity. When the inevitable crash clangs on the soundtrack, his eyebrows go up a full inch. But that’s all that happens. Getting out of his car to see if there are any survivors is something he’ll get around to on his own schedule.

“In The Guard, the rural Irish resent the big-city Dubliners, all the Irish resent the English, and everybody in the British Isles resents the cultural dominance of American crime shows and movies.”

Modeled after the 1960s-70s movies in which Walter Matthau elevated middle-aged cynicism to an art form, The Guard provides the 56-year-old Gleeson with a grand opportunity at what the Irish do best: being abrasive and warm simultaneously.

The Guard is written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, whose younger, more successful brother Martin McDonagh (playwright of The Beauty Queen of Leenane) directed Gleeson in the 2008 gangster film In Bruges.

Martin got an executive-producer credit and a $10,000 check from his big brother for passing the screenplay on to Gleeson, but that was the extent of fraternal teamwork. We’re now familiar with brother acts such as the Coens, Wachowskis, and Farrellys, but the McDonaghs’ mutual standoffishness was more the Golden Age norm. For example, Herman J. Mankiewicz cowrote Citizen Kane and his younger brother Joseph L. Mankiewicz wrote All About Eve, but they rarely worked together.

The elder McDonagh has a slightly mechanical gimmick to inspire his screenwriting: He takes all the clichés in American detective dramas and has his characters do the exact opposite. Thus, he’s made a message movie about prejudice and xenophobia: They add a bit of fun to life! In The Guard, the rural Irish resent the big-city Dubliners, all the Irish resent the English, and everybody in the British Isles resents the cultural dominance of American crime shows and movies.

The rest of the cast is almost as good as Gleeson. Don Cheadle (Hotel Rwanda) plays a fastidious FBI agent sent to Ireland to catch a Colombian ship attempting to land $500,000,000 worth of cocaine on Connacht’s convoluted coast. Sgt. Boyle scoffs that it’s $500,000,000 as the FBI calculates “street value” for its press releases. “I do always wonder what street you lads are buying your cocaine on, because it’s not the same street I’m buying my cocaine on.”

In the 44-year-old tradition of black-cop/white-cop buddy movies going back to Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier in 1967’s In the Heat of the Night, circumstances require Gleeson and Cheadle to team up. By 2011, however, all the institutional advantages are on the black city cop’s side. Yet the Irishman continues to needle the African-American with digs that would get him sent to a diversity reeducation camp in America.

When Cheadle explains that, no, he’s not from “the projects,” he’s from a privileged background—“Summer in the Hamptons, skiing in Aspen”—Gleeson gleefully interrupts, “I thought black people couldn’t ski…or is that swimming?” When Cheadle objects, Gleeson insists that he be afforded multicultural sensitivity: “I’m Irish, sir. Racism is part of my culture.”

The chief villain is portrayed by Mark Strong, the fellow who looks like a larger, scarier Stanley Tucci. (Strong was born Marco Giuseppe Salussolia.)

Unlike Strong’s bad guy in Robert Downey, Jr.’s 2009 Sherlock Holmes, who pursued world domination as unquestioningly as movie antagonists are supposed to, Strong’s philosophical English drug dealer in The Guard finds villainy boring and depressing: “I’m sick of the kind of people we have to deal with in this business.” While killing time, he challenges his hit man (who insists, “I’m not a psychopath, I’m a sociopath”) to come up with a single quote from Nietzsche and then mocks the hired gun for predictability in dredging up “What does not kill me, makes me stronger.”

Perhaps The Guard is no great advance on Pulp Fiction’s killers laughing over a French McDonald’s serving “a Royale with cheese.” The Guard’s whimsy may be a little on the nose; I kept saying, “Hey, I would have written that line.”

But it’s a very funny movie.


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