To an outsider like FBI agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle), Sergeant Gerry Boyle (Brendan Gleeson) appears to be a terribly unprofessional police officer. It's not an unobservant stance to take, because that's what Boyle projects: he's crass, rude, some of his jokes are casually racist, and when a "half-billion dollar" drug deal appears to be going down in the little town of Connemara, he seems less than overwhelmingly concerned with finding those in charge, or solving the related homicide. On the first day of the investigation, Boyle tells Wendell it's his day off. "I'm sure 24 hours won't make any difference," he tells Wendell, straight-faced. The antsy partnership between Wendell and Boyle forms the basis for The Guard, the first feature by writer/director John Michael McDonagh. Like his brother's 2008 film In Bruges, which Focus tried to stuff into an ill-fititng Lock, Stock-shaped box, The Guard seems destined to be summarized as a "buddy cop comedy," a label that doesn't really hint at the nuance in their disagreements, or the satisfaction of seeing them bond.
At first, when Boyle and his clueless partner Aidan (Rory Keenan) find a murder victim with Bible pages stuffed in his mouth and the number "5½" written on the wall in blood, Boyle doesn't seem to think anything will come of it. Connemara's a quiet place, and it's clear that Boyle's far more invested in sharing a few wicked laughs with his dying mother (Fionnula Flannagan), picking up hookers (Dominique McElligott and Sarah Greene), and occasionally saying a thing or two just to get a rise out of any of the numerous stiffs surrounding him than he is in wasting time trying to solve a crime he won't necessarily have the resources or freedom to fully investigate.
When Wendell arrives, however, Boyle seems to light up. Wendell is a decent family man with good morals, and over the course of several beers and multiple uncomfortable interactions, Gerry sizes up his partner. Even when Boyle says something purely to get a rise out of Wendell, no matter how outrageous it is, he does it as a means of locating their common ground. To that end, Gleeson imbues Gerry with sharp observational skills, self-awareness, and ultimately, a genuine kind-heartedness that shows through even when Gerry's at his most biting. On the opposite side of the table, Cheadle gives a wonderfully funny, reactive performance as Wendell starts to accept the way in which Gerry is testing him. Boyle may be harsh, but as Wendell's investigation continues, it becomes clear that he's trustworthy and reliable for the exact same reasons.
Aside from Boyle and Wendell, the film has its ups and downs. Early scenes with Gerry and Aidan pale in comparison to what comes later, exhibiting a rougher, cruder sense of humor. The trio of gangsters behind the drugs, Sheehy (Liam Cunningham), Liam (David Wilmot), and Clive (Mark Strong), as funny as they are, are built around the simpler, more familiar gag of verbose and intelligent gangsters. The best scene with any of the gangsters, which finds Clive at a payoff, has an air of awkwardly-written exposition to it, even if Strong really sells the jokes. On the other hand, Flannagan is wonderful as Gerry's mother, and the bond they share is almost as evenly matched as the one Gerry shares with Wendell.
Flaws and all, McDonagh finds the right note on which to tie everything together, resulting in a wonderfully satisfying conclusion set at a boat dock with significant western overtones. The Guard may not fit into the "buddy cop" genre, which is all about surface differences, but plays off of it in a pleasing way: where some movies start with a growing friendship that ultimately turns into professional respect when they realize their goals are aligned, McDonagh does the opposite, turning a begrudging professional respect into an unorthodox friendship that neither of the two men would've guessed they wanted.
The Guard is a hard movie to sum up in a single image, but the theatrical posters for the film still feel a little underwhelming: Gleeson, Cheadle, and a gun, with the added distraction of positioning the actors under the wrong name. Sadly, the Blu-Ray replicates this artwork, inside a single-disc, plastic-conserving ECO-case.
The Video and Audio
Sony's MPEG-4 AVC 1080p 2.35:1 presentation of The Guard is impeccable. Very fine film grain is visible. Detail is high enough to study the texture of Brendan Gleeson's skin in even a medium close-up. Whites have a slightly bluish-gray tint that seems common to Sony Blu-Rays, but scenes bathed in cover are wonderfully vivid, and the look as a whole still seems accurate to the theatrical presentation I saw earlier this year. It doesn't necessarily have the depth of a film shot on HD video, but I can't say I saw any flaws of note in this high-definition presentation.
An English DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track has a nice crispness, which may or may not help audiences decipher a little bit more of the thick Irish accents on hand. When the wonderfully western-inspired score fires up, such as over the movie's opening titles or during the dock climax, it packs a strong punch and vibrancy, and there's a refreshingly non-artificial sense of atmosphere to the mixing. Again, this is a film that appears to have been shot and recorded traditionally, so it may not have the depth or surround of something more cutting-edge, but it's accurate and authentic, which is what matters. Three English subtitle tracks are included: one with black boxes around the text to keep it standing out over the background, which appears to center itself over the speaker; one standard English subtitle track, and a subtitle track for the audio commentary.
Audio commentary by director/writer John Michael McDonagh and actors Brendan Gleeson and Don Cheadle: Lighthearted, but perhaps less informative than I expected: no discussion here of the script's genesis, the actors becoming involved, the extent to which John Michael's brother, Martin McDonagh (director/writer of the wonderful In Bruges and executive producer of The Guard) helped or didn't help. Still, it's fun to listen to the trio (especially Gleeson) giggling over things like Gleeson's character sniffing his fingers, whether or not Don Cheadle helped cover for Whitey Bulger, the audience's understanding of the jokes, and the imaginary sequel they'll all be back for.
"The Making of The Guard" (19:21, HD): a breezy behind-the-scenes look that actually does a good job of capturing the upbeat atmosphere of the set, which is rare in an EPK. An unseen interviewer (director Elizabeth Eves, no doubt) wanders around getting the usual EPK information, but does so with a light touch that results in many of the actors chuckling through their interviews. Viewers will no doubt appreciate the chance to see Don Cheadle's Christopher Walken impression, a hilarious montage of McDonagh slightly adjusting various pieces of various sets, and everyone just appearing to have a great time working on the movie. If only all EPKs were this likable.
"The Second Death" (11:32, SD): A dramatic short film by John Michael, with several cast members from The Guard and an early version of the Gerry Boyle character.
Outtakes (3:05, SD): Pretty standard-issue, but offers a few good chuckles.
"Q&A With Actors Brendan Gleeson, Don Cheadle, and Director John Michael McDonagh" (18:09, SD): Standard Q&A, which means the questions are a little bit dry, and the actors and director try and make the best of them. The loose chat does cover some of the topics ignored by the commentary, such as reflections upon the script.
3 deleted scenes (6:07, SD) and 12 extended and alternate scenes (18:37, SD): They may be an amusing moment or two here, but the vast majority of material here was wisely cut from the finished film. Many of the latter are also extended only by a line or two, yet are essentially presented in their entirety.
Trailers for Higher Ground, Life Above All, Take Shelter, A Dangerous Method, Carnage, and The Skin I Live In play before the main menu. The Guard's original theatrical trailer has also been included.
Wickedly funny and sharply observant, The Guard is a triumph of character development, thanks both to the writer/director and his two excellent leads, and one of the year's best films. The disc itself boasts impeccable A/V quality, and a highly entertaining commentary track, and a selection of video extras that hits all the bases (even if, say, the deleted scenes were better left out of the movie, they're here, and that's what's important). DVDTalk Collector's Series.
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