Once Upon A Time In Galway
Well, cripes and blimey: it hardly ever happens, but there's nothing new on at the cinema that your correspondent was actually prepared to pay to watch, no-one being prepared to see their new release being squashed by the combined effect of the Bat-juggernaut and the Patriotic Festival of Obscure Sports currently making a visit to London such a memorably lengthy and expensive undertaking. So what shall I ramble on about this week?
I've been watching lots of movies recently, but I'm really not sure that the good citizens of and visitors to h2g2 (this means you, by the way) are really that bothered about learning my opinion of a Kurosawa samurai picture, a 50s American SF B-movie, or a Japanese suitamation film of any provenance or vintage. So I have decided to step back in time nearly a year and write a proper review of my favourite film of 2011, John Michael McDonagh's The Guard.
This is a crime movie centred on a tremendous performance by Brendan Gleeson, an actor perhaps best known for playing supporting parts in much bigger movies like Troy, Gangs of New York, and the Harry Potter series.
Gleeson seizes with enormous relish on the role of Gerry Boyle, a sergeant in the Garda of west Ireland. Boyle initially appears to be not much more than a simple country copper, unreconstructed, often crass, bigoted (‘I’m Irish, being racist is part of my culture,’ he explains, when someone objects to this), and laid-back to the point of actual moral degeneracy.
However, when a murdered corpse turns up on his patch, Boyle finds himself involved in the hunt for a group of drug traffickers (led by Liam Cunningham and the increasingly ubiquitous Mark Strong). As a result he is somewhat reluctantly partnered with slick and etiquette-conscious FBI agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle). As it becomes increasingly apparent that other Garda members take their corruption rather more seriously than Gerry, the two find themselves increasingly isolated as they close in on their quarry.
It sounds like a fairly routine odd-couple crime thriller, and on one level The Guard delivers this in a very efficient and taut way, albeit with some novelty value due to the Galway setting. However, what turns it into something very special is its tone, which is totally at odds with this: despite being a film about drug smuggling which includes a considerable number of deaths, most of them violent, The Guard is more consistently and genuinely funny than most comedies.
Normally I have no time for the lazy reviewer habit of amalgam algebra – you know, describing a film as ‘It’s Groundhog Day meets Murder on the Oriental Express!’ or something ludicrous like that. However, the best description of The Guard I’ve read is something just like this – it’s Father Ted meets Bad Lieutenant. Tight and effective though the story is, the dialogue keeps meandering off in odd directions as characters discuss Russian literature or existential philosophy. Both Boyle himself and the movie ruthlessly undercut and mock any sign of Hollywood posturing from the story or characters. Galway is depicted as a rusticated hinterland populated entirely by oddballs and much of the humour comes from the reactions of unsuspecting outsiders who’ve wandered into this realm and can’t quite believe what they’re seeing and hearing.
Mark Strong is customarily good as a bad-tempered drug baron who resents the poor class of person he is obliged to spend time with in his chosen career, but the main foil is Don Cheadle’s character. Cheadle finds an impressive number of different ways of looking gobsmacked at the various pearls of wisdom Gleeson passes on to him, and there’s more than a hint of In the Heat of the Night in the relationship between the two characters. In the end though, he’s very much the straight man and second banana to Brendan Gleeson.
Gleeson turns Boyle into one of the great movie characters of recent years, a fully rounded and believeable – not to mention hugely likeable – figure, despite his various outrageous excesses. The script shows us all sides of the man: his usual cynicism and world-weariness, the integrity buried somewhere deep within, his intelligence (usually masked behind a boorish facade), and his emotions. This latter element is mainly explored through a subplot involving his relationship with his ailing mother, which still manages to be deeply funny as well as moving. (His mother is played by Fionnula Flanagan, who seems to specialise in playing a) mothers and b) people who are either dying or actually dead.) That said, this isn’t a movie which treats human behaviour in a simplistic or mechanical way – we’re left to draw our own conclusions as to why Boyle makes some of the choices he does as the film goes on.
McDonagh’s script effortlessly juggles characters, plot, dialogue, and even genre: at times this film plays like a western, an impression which is helped by Calexico’s twangy score. In the end, though, the sheer quality of the piece transcends this sort of consideration: no matter how you approach it, The Guard is a terrific, hugely impressive movie, stuffed with good performances and pricelessly funny lines and moments, all in the cause of a very solid story. One of the very best films of 2011, and – I suspect – one that will look good for years to come.