Saturday, August 20, 2011

Review: "The Guard" falls short but provides big laughs and lots of heart

Film Rating: B

One of my favorite films of the last few years is Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges, a movie that comes as close to perfect as any film can.  Though riotously funny, it’s not quite a comedy, and though it can be painfully bleak and is thematically complex, it’s also not quite a drama.  It eschews ordinary genre classification, but make no mistake: the film – about two hit-men on holiday after a botched job - knows exactly what it is at all times.  The Guard – written and director by Martin’s brother, John Michael McDonagh – is similarly flavored, a film that is simultaneously thoughtful and comedic, but has a more difficult time justifying its genre-bending antics.  It’s certainly good – like his brother, John Michael writes brilliantly rewarding dialogue – but it feels slight and unfinished, leaving some great ideas and narrative or thematic possibilities unfulfilled.  Continue after the jump...

That puts it many rungs below In Bruges, but one thing the two films do have in common is that they make expert use of the wonderful Brendan Gleeson.  Gleeson is best known to American audiences as Mad-Eye Moody from the Harry Potter series, but he’s an actor who truly deserves starring roles, as he proved with his remarkable turn in Bruges.  He’s just as good here in The Guard, speaking for the first time in a while with his native Irish accent.  Gleeson can be hilarious in one moment and heartbreaking the next, and as Sgt. Gerry Boyle, he’s asked to go to both ends of the spectrum in nearly every scene.  Gleeson sinks entirely into the character, finding the humanity in a man we really shouldn’t like, and McDonagh’s script trusts Gleeson enough not to spell out the entire character arc on page; Gleeson can tell the entire story in a single glance, and many of his best moments during the last act serve as master-classes in non-verbal acting. 

Boyle’s arc is truly fascinating.  He is a misanthropic Irish police officer (or “Guard”) without much regard for rules or decency.  One day, a by-the-book FBI agent, Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle), arrives to give Boyle’s department a briefing about an international drug smuggling operation that has just arrived in the area.  Partnered with Wendell, Boyle’s investigation leads him to discover a wave of corruption and bribery, and to finally confront his own ideals. 
This is not, however, a typical redemption story about a curmudgeon who suddenly discovers the healing power of hugs and kisses.  Boyle’s unusual personality never changes; the journey he takes is a subtle one, but powerful nevertheless. 

His biggest flaw is that he believes in absolutely nothing – not himself, not other people, and certainly not his own law-enforcement job.  During the investigation, however, he is forced to confront all three of these things, taking a good long look at his life, learning how to trust another person by working with Agent Everett, and finally deciding how much the job means to him when he finally decides to take a stance.  The last act, and the final few scenes in particular, are very powerful; not only does Boyle’s arc come to a satisfying culmination, but his decisions relate a thoughtful message about the sanctity of law, ideals, and taking a stance for what one believes in.  As I said above, Gleeson is fantastic in every single scene, and his performance only gets better and better as Boyle’s story moves along; I hope he is remembered come Oscar time.

Yet as fascinating and rewarding as Boyle’s story is, I don’t think it’s quite as memorable or impactful as it rightfully should be.  McDonagh’s script has a very strong hold on who Boyle is and how he changes as an individual, but when it comes to Boyle’s relationships, the film largely falls flat.  Don Cheadle’s character, Agent Everett, is seriously underdeveloped; Cheadle is an inherently likable and engaging performer, talents he utilizes to great effect here, but Everett never feels like an essential part of the film until the last twenty minutes.  He’s largely in the background, and spends only a few scenes opposite Gleeson before the climax.  Given that the ending is wholly contingent on understanding the ‘complex’ relationship between Boyle and Everett, this is a major shortcoming, and undercuts the emotional punch the final moment tries to deliver.  It’s especially disappointing considering how good Cheadle and Gleeson play together; every scene they share is fantastic, but Cheadle isn’t a big enough part of the movie for his character or their relationship to really feel organic. 

The same goes for Mark Strong’s character, a head member of the antagonistic drug cartel.  There are three main antagonists, and they provide very healthy doses of comic relief; I laughed very hard whenever they were on screen.  Strong’s character, the most thoughtful of the trio, is starting to feel unfulfilled by his life of crime.  It’s a strong set-up for a sub-plot, but the story goes absolutely nowhere, and Strong’s moral dilemma is so underdeveloped that most of his scenes prove more distracting than integral.  It’s a shame, because Strong is an excellent actor, and he does a great job with what little he is given. 

There are more problematic story points or movie scattered throughout the film; it’s messy and unfocused, and in the end, that makes the film feel a lot less substantive than it actually is.  Boyle is a wonderful creation – and a sub-plot where he takes care of his ailing mother provides the biggest and best emotional moments – but almost everything around him is far less effective.  To the film’s credit, McDonagh’s script is full of great dialogue.  I’d love to get my hands on the script and simply pour over the prose, because much of it is genius; I am especially impressed by McDonagh’s ability to weave long, vulgar, and surprisingly poetic strings of profanity into his dialogue.  McDonagh also proves a very capable director, and if viewed as a straight comedy, The Guard certainly ranks as one of the best of the year.  From start to finish, it is extremely funny.

Or, it’s funny when you can understand the characters, at least.  Everything I say about this film should come with a caveat – due to the cast’s thick Irish accents, the dialogue is very difficult to understand.  That’s not a flaw in the film – I applaud the authenticity – but this is a dialect of English most Americans simply aren’t familiar with, and the film really demands subtitles.  The lack of captions surprised me; I myself watch plenty of film and TV where the characters have various accents, and over the years, I’ve gotten good at deciphering them.  Yet even I had a really tough time understanding some of this dialogue, and is constantly distracted from the experience.  Those less accustomed to accents, such as my mother, who had a very tough time with the film, will certainly be lost and baffled by The Guard.  Subtitles would have solved this problem, but alas, they are not provided.  If accents – especially thick and heavy Irish ones – challenge you, then you may wish to wait for the DVD, where subtitles can be turned on. 

But whether you see it in theatres or on DVD, do make an effort to see The Guard.  It’s far from perfect, and I think the flaws stop it from being truly memorable, but it is worth watching if, for nothing else, Gleeson’s tremendous performance.  It’s also very funny, and though John Michael McDonagh’s writing doesn’t show the same level of confidence or identity as his brother Martin’s, his dialogue is just as good, and he has tremendous promise as a filmmaker.  I didn’t love The Guard, but I’ll be first in line for whatever he does next.

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