Garda Sergeant Gerry Boyle, the hero of writer-director John Michael McDonagh’s debut feature ‘The Guard’, is a spectacular creation: a drug-sniffing, booze-swigging, blarney-spouting iconoclast with an eye for the ladies, an exhaustive knowledge of literature, film and the arts and a penchant for infuriating the higher-ups at every conceivable opportunity. But the devil is in the details. So while McDonagh has created an unforgettable central figure, and Brendan Gleeson has responded with a towering, Oscar-worthy performance, the rest of the film struggles to rise to the occasion.
The plot is familiar buddy movie fare – when a murder takes place in Boyle’s sleepy Connemara village, he soon pinpoints the perpetrators as a gang of ruthless international drug smugglers, but the powers that be have assigned a by-the-book FBI agent (Don Cheadle) to the case. The usual fish-out-of-water shenanigans ensue, but eventually these two proud policemen reach an understanding.
There’s an enormous amount to enjoy in ‘The Guard’: McDonagh’s script crackles with memorable one-liners, the rapport between Gleeson and Cheadle is note-perfect and the film’s observations on small-town life are piercing and often hilarious. So it’s frustrating when, after a flawless first act, the script begins to wander off the point: Cheadle is kept off screen for far too long while we spend time in the company of Mark Strong and his band of overwritten, philosophy-spouting Tarantino-esque crooks and Boyle is sidetracked by a vague, unsatisfying flirtation with a murdered colleague’s wife.
The cast is studded with solid supporting performances from the likes of Strong, Fionnula Flanagan and Irish comedy icon Pat Shortt, but sometimes there are too many side characters to keep track of. And while McDonagh’s direction has flashes of brilliance – the savage, sadistically funny opening scene is one for the ages – he often struggles to lend his film a genuinely cinematic look.
The result is a hugely entertaining but frustratingly disorganised film, packed with priceless moments which never quite coalesce into a rewarding whole. Gerry Boyle is a masterful creation – and a character well worth returning to, should the film prove successful – but one can’t help feeling that if equal attention had been paid to other elements, ‘The Guard’ could have stepped up from simply fun Friday night fare to outright comedy classic.