Although great, hard-bitten murder mysteries can come from any country, despite its murder rate (in fact, films like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo or the original TV show The Killing play off and utilize the rarity of heinous crimes in Sweden and Denmark, respectively), there is something inherently light, even subversive, when it comes to cops and robbers in the European countryside. It’s a setting that lends itself to levity, a fact not missed by recent films like Hot Fuzz and In Bruges, the latter of which is a wicked take on the assassin genre starring Irish treasure Brendan Gleeson.
Gleeson also stars in The Guard, a kind of hybrid of the aforementioned films, as Gerry Boyle, a whoring, hard-drinking, confiscated-drug-popping police sergeant charged with solving a case of drug smuggling, murder and conspiracy. His means: honed detective skills, a half-hearted work ethic and a seemingly endless array of insults lobbed at anyone within spitting distance. The Guard, in fact, was written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, brother of In Bruges writer-director Martin.
That’s not to say that The Guard is wanting for shootouts, red herrings or “really big maps” with important-looking pins in them. When the criminal conspiracy begins to reveal itself (headed, of course, by Mark Strong as a weary tough), the FBI is called in – actually, just one agent is sent: Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle), a by-the-book detective whose race does not go unnoticed by the casually racist Boyle. What looks at the offset (and in the film’s trailer) like a limp twist on the buddy-cop genre turns out to be a rich character study – McDonagh’s script mines surprising emotional beats and a workmanlike chemistry between Gleeson and Cheadle devoid of cutesiness or forced motivation. The two, in fact, don’t actually spend much more time together than they would typically need to in a case like this, yet there they are at the end, trying to come to terms with the deadly serious nature of their mission. And in the hills of Connemara, “deadly serious” can be a tough concept to grasp.