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 DVD replicates this artwork, inside a single-disc, plastic-conserving ECO-case.
The Video and Audio
Sony's 2.35:1 anamorphic presentation of The Guard leaves something to be desired. The vividly colored, low-light, filmic look of the movie does not lend itself well to DVD, in which the colors all appear to be on the verge of bleeding, especially the bold red credits, which appear murky and covered in artifacts. The image is quite soft and free of fine detail. Blacks and other dark colors crush, and there is a hint of posterization in one or two of the transitions. To be fair to the transfer itself, this is likely a case of the film in question simply presenting an impossible set of conditions for a standard definition transfer, and it looks okay taken as a whole, but there are definitely visible flaws in this SD-DVD image.
English Dolby Digital 5.1 is strong, cleanly handling a number of potentially indecipherable accents with a relative ease. The trumpet-heavy music by Calexico, which will no doubt inspire thoughts of classic westerns, is nicely spread out across the soundfield. Gunfire is well-emphasized. Overall separation could be a little stronger (although I admit I might just be reflecting on the Blu-Ray's HD audio), but on the whole, I had no real problems with this audio track. Five subtitle tracks are also available: an English track with black boxes around the words to separate them from anything on-screen, one without the boxes, Spanish and Portuguese subtitles, and subtitles for the audio commentary track.
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): 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): 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): Pretty standard-issue, but offers a few good chuckles.
"Q&A With Actors Brendan Gleeson, Don Cheadle, and Director John Michael McDonagh" (18:09): 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) and 12 extended and alternate scenes (18:37): 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 DVD leaves a little something to be desired in terms of picture quality (which isn't entirely Sony's fault), but it's still plenty watchable. 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) round out the package. Highly recommended.
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