Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Review: "The Guard"

A special sort of profanity runs in the family for brothers Martin and John McDonagh. Three years ago, Martin released his first feature film, In Bruges, which scored a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination, in addition to resurrecting Colin Farrell's career. That film, my favorite of 2008, played like a linear, European cousin to Pulp Fiction, with its lengthy, profanity-laced conversations that were somehow about everything and nothing simultaneously. Now, it's John's turn in the spot light. However, McDonagh's The Guard, despite nice work from Brendan Gleeson and Don Cheadle, can't quite measure up to his brother's debut feature.

Set in a small Irish town, The Guard focuses on Sgt. Gerry Boyle (Gleeson), an unorthodox police officer who is assigned to work with FBI agent Wendell Everett (Cheadle). Together (and apart), the pair try to uncover the reason behind a cop's death, while figuring out the incident's connection to a trio of drug dealers (Liam Cunningham, Mark Strong, and David Wilmot). At its core, The Guard is essentially a buddy cop movie, although it doesn't give Gleeson and Cheadle as much screen time together as you might expect. It's just one of several aspects that holds back McDonagh's film from reaching its full potential.

Now, to be clear, there was no need for McDonagh to strive to make In Bruges Version 2.0., but it's difficult to avoid the comparisons because of the similar style (not to mention the family connection). Like In Bruges, many scenes involve rambling discussions that cover territory such as religion, sex, and race. But even though The Guard has a handful of shining moments, these conversations lack the pacing and escalation of those found in similar works. The exchanges that are clearly meant to be the absolute highlights of a particular discussion rarely inspire more that a solid 'ha!' which is disappointing because the film is clearly meant to be a comedy, despite several deaths. Gleeson and Cheadle are clearly game, and have good chemistry, but the script doesn't utilize the pair's compatibility at all. Had the film been balanced with weightier moments (there's one, but it doesn't register much), I could understand the less energetic writing style, but instead The Guard comes off as a pleasant, albeit lazy crime story.

Even the film's central question (whether Sgt. Boyle is brilliant or an idiot) fails to create much that's compelling or entertaining. And when Cheadle isn't sharing the screen with Gleeson, his role becomes reduced to a one-note joke: an American outsider who completely fails at connecting with his Irish surroundings. Sometimes the execution of the joke works (Everett resorts to talking to a horse while canvassing a largely Gaelic-speaking neighborhood), and other times it comes off as limp, as though McDonagh was directing while simultaneously participating in a conference call. Even the spaghetti western-influenced score fails to liven up the proceedings, though it sure tries its hardest.

To be clear, though, The Guard is not a terrible film. It's just a disappointment considering the people involved, not to mention the generally positive word of mouth. I wish I could say that McDonagh's film was at least a piece of entertaining Irish fluff, but it barely qualifies as that; I'd have a hard time recommending it as a 'must see' or rental to even the biggest In Bruges fan. Instead, it's an extremely minor piece of film making that wastes the potential of its leads with characters who aren't nearly as funny or engaging as the script would like us to believe. It's also evidence that while there certain ideas, traits, and themes that run through the McDonagh veins, the ability to execute is unfortunately not one of them.

Grade: C+

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