Brendan Gleeson soars in "The Guard," playing a foul-mouthed Irish cop destined to offend everyone in his path, but the depth of the character overwhelms the quality of the movie about him. As the rambunctious Sergeant Gerry Boyle, Gleeson moves through each scene with a stunning duality, making his onscreen persona simultaneously charismatic and disreputable as he delivers an endless stream of risque lines. But the screenplay, by writer-director John Michael McDonagh, gives him too little to say.
McDonagh (brother of noted playwright and "In Bruges" director Martin) begins with such enthusiasm for the sergeant's ribald nature that it becomes difficult for him to top the energy of the first act. A brilliantly morbid gag in the opening scene finds Boyle lazily observing a car crash from the side of the road and stealing drugs from the bodies of the victims. From there, McDonagh launches a lively credits sequence that establishes the ironic manner in which McDonagh views himself as a hero. Once a story comes into focus, however, the movie instantly loses momentum. When straight-faced FBI agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle) arrives at Boyle's small town police station, "The Guard" becomes a familiar story of drug traffickers, blackmail and murder.
Only Boyle's unstoppable tendency to mouth off sustains the routine plot, but McDonagh pushes the limits of what he can make Gleeson say without making the crude nature of his asides overwhelm their comic potential. Shamelessly vulgar and racist, Boyle at first enrages Everett before the FBI agent realizes that the cop's coarse language masks his first-rate detective skills. Although that might not excuse Boyle's unseemly jabs at his partner's race (which lack the subversive comic appeal McDonagh intends for them), it does allow for Everett's gradual sympathy for the man to mirror our own.
McDonagh eventually makes it clear that Boyle uses his spiteful behavior to obscure his status as a lonely man. Appearing most at ease with prostitutes and his dying mother, Boyle becomes an object of pity. That hidden dynamic to his personality allows McDonagh to test the boundaries of the character's crude nature, when the mystery behind the corruption of the police force tests the extent to which his twisted moral code will bend. Gleeson's performance suggests a more advanced take on Seth Rogen's demented mall cop in "Observe and Report," with a greater dimension of pathos.
The selling point for "The Guard" comes from an amusing interplay between Gleeson and everyone around him. McDonagh occasionally does Quentin Tarantino one better by turning the pulpy banter of cops and robbers into absurdly personal exchanges. ("Have the lights gone dim?" he asks a hitman shortly after shooting him in the chest. "Don't mock me," the dying man fires back.) But McDonagh inhabits the genre more than he turns it inside out, concluding with a trite climactic shootout, an overly familiar cliché that no single quip from Gleeson can salvage.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Described by McDonagh at the film's world premiere as "a very black comedy with some sad bits," the movie's odd tone and rampant vulgarity makes it a tough sale. A few critics will defend its strange mix of wacky comedy and police work, but its biggest hope lies with the prospects of Gleeson's performance generating strong word-of-mouth, which could help the movie in limited release.
criticWIRE grade: B