4 out of 4 stars
Cherry-picking bits and pieces from hipster crime noir, Benny Hill, mismatched buddy/cop flicks and even a Civil Rights drama, filmmaker John Michael McDonagh's feature debut "The Guard" isn't all that original, but man is it ever funny.
Set and filmed in the coastal county of Galway in Ireland, "The Guard" opens with blaring punk-metal accompanying a drug and alcohol-soaked car wreck that more than adequately establishes its sick puppy mindset and up-against-the-wall approach.
There's not a single wasted frame to be found within its blisteringly efficient 96 minute running time, and the only complaint about it could be that it's being released on one of the worst movie weekends of the year.
This is the kind of cold-slap flick that should come out in the late fall when we're being inundated with mostly stodgy Oscar hopefuls.
The casting in something like "The Guard" is crucial and McDonagh nails it across the board. From lead Brendan Gleason all way the down to bit players with a single line or word, every performer is perfect for their part and take often throwaway lines and spin them into gold.
It is in the aftermath of that car wreck that we get an idea of how unhinged it will be. Shortly after arriving at the scene and halfway determining that everyone is dead, Sgt. Gerry Boyle (Gleason) rifles through the pockets of one of the deceased and finds a baggie loaded with contraband. He tosses most of it but isn't about to let that tab of Mr. Smiley LSD go to waste and quickly pops it into his mouth.
Boyle isn't in love with the idea of being a cop, but does enjoy the few perks it provides. In this next-to-nowhere town, he can get away with tripping and drinking while on duty and thinks nothing of hiring a pair of hookers and have them dress up like cops when they service him.
Lacking that all-important filter between brain and mouth, Boyle says exactly what he's thinking at all times. When dealing with the locals this comes in handy, but when addressing visiting black American FBI agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle), he becomes an absolute embarrassment.
Boyle isn't a racist as much as he's socially ignorant and bases his statements and assumptions on what he sees in the news and in the movies. Like Sidney Poitier's character in "The Heat of the Night," Everett realizes that it's probably better just to let Boyle be who he is because beneath his insensitive, politically incorrect exterior there is a man with above-average detective skills.
Everett is in Galway to help the Irish authorities catch a band of British drug smugglers that start out as a quartet but soon become a trio. Like Everett, the bad guys can't quite figure out what's in the water that makes these people say and do such stupid things and neither do they have the patience or inclination to blend in. They're reckless and feckless but also fearless.
Pinching a bunch from Tarantino, Guy Ritchie and the Coen brothers, McDonagh makes his story far more interesting than it would be otherwise by including a scant few passages of flashback at just the right time. The first act is strewn with seemingly unconnected bits of plot and incidental characters that all resurface later in most ingenious ways. McDonagh isn't a great writer but he's very good at story construction.
McDonagh saves his most obvious/egregious act of theft/homage for the final act which -- and this won't spoil anything -- is lifted straight from "The Usual Suspects." If you're going to "borrow" from another movie, at least do so from a classic.
Here's something you won't normally read in a review written by someone that isn't fond of sequels: McDonagh should make a sequel to "The Guard." The characters are so rich and he's barely scratched the surface of who they are and where he could take them. The ending is just vague enough to get away with it, and if enough people take the chance and actually pay to see it (hint, hint), McDonagh could bring these odd people back for another go 'round. (Sony Classics)