Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Available on DVD: “The Guard”

Don Cheadle and Brendan Gleeson in The Guard
For the f-word in heavy, conventional rotation, rent the DVD of The Change-Up. Which is another way of saying there's not much reason to watch The Change-Up, unless you're an unusually big fan of Ryan Reynolds or Jason Bateman. But for the same word in heavy, unconventional and often very funny usage, in a disarming black comedy set in County Galway, Ireland, feast your ears on the sweetly profane dialogue of writer-director John Michael McDonagh as heard in The Guard.

Is it a matter of a regional dialect lending a freshness to words, and combinations of words, deployed as fabulous verbal invective? Partly, yes. But McDonagh, the brother of playwright, screenwriter and director Martin McDonagh (In Bruges), has a gift. Time and future projects will reveal whether his gift keeps on giving. Meantime The Guard, which stars the superb Brendan Gleeson as a police sergeant of flexible morals but stoic good cheer, makes up for a lot of formulaic crud lately.

The easiest benchmark with The Guard is to consider whether you enjoyed In Bruges, which co-starred Gleeson and Colin Farrell as hit men, because the brothers McDonagh (Martin serves as an executive producer on The Guard) spent time rooming together in London watching American movies and television and soaking up the argot of all kinds of pulp writers. Related influences have led to complementary comic sensibilities.

In The Guard Gleeson's Gerry Boyle teams up with a visiting American FBI agent, played by Don Cheadle, to chase down (in an ambling sort of way) a rumored half-billion dollars' worth of cocaine smuggled into Ireland by a trio of bad 'uns, notably the icy-eyed killer played by Mark Strong. Boyle enjoys his occasional prostitutes and is seen in the prologue dropping acid after lifting it off a corpse following a fatal highway accident. He sees the arrival of Cheadle's character primarily as an excuse to say things about black people being mostly drug dealers, and how Boyle's offhanded manner of fact-gathering must be strange to the visitor, because, as Boyle deadpans, "You're probably more used to shooting unarmed women and children."

Besides Gleeson and Cheadle, two of the most interesting faces in modern movies, the film is notable for its aggressively nonrealistic design scheme, full of heavy splashes of interior color and a glaring lack of modern technology, even for the Wild West of modern Ireland. McDonagh, cinematographer Larry Smith and production designer John Paul Kelly evoke crime films of an earlier time, when weather-beaten fellows such as Walter Matthau found themselves the unlikely central figure of an offbeat story. In between pints, crime-solving and score-settling, Boyle tends to his dying mother, played by Fionnula Flanagan. These scenes are sweet, if calculated perhaps too baldly to provide an extra measure of sympathy for the protagonist.

The repartee carries a proudly self-aware edge, on the verge of excess every minute, as when a low-life sociopath takes time to assess the virtues of jazz trumpeter and vocalist Chet Baker. (At one point Boyle has a discussion regarding Gogol versus Dostoevski.) As was the case with In Bruges, when the time comes for McDonagh's action climax the filmmaking comes up slightly short. It's a small problem in a small movie that yields large atmospheric and comic rewards. Part Joel & Ethan Coen and part John Millington Synge, this grotty little fairy tale casts a deft line and reels you in. I'd watch it again just to hear the drug smugglers argue over the use of the Americanism "good to go."

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