I’ve long been interested in teaching a class on humor and the “isms” (race, class, sex, elite) and phobias that plague our existence. If I can ever teach that class, I’ll show The Guard, John Michael McDonagh‘s take on the police buddy comedy that approaches race/ism with some intelligence, humor, and complexity and features two fine performances by Brendan Gleeson and Don Cheadle.
Sergeant Gerry Boyle (Brendan Gleeson) is a Galway policeman who speaks first and asks questions later. He and recent transfer, Aidan McBride (Rory Keenan), have been called to investigate a mysterious murder. At the same time, Sergeant Boyle is scheduled to attend a presentation by Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle) on a missing illegal drug shipment and the suspected culprits operating in the area. Could the murder be related? The film follows Sergeant Boyle and Agent Everett’s attempts to get to the bottom of things and their efforts to get on with each other, despite the sergeant’s racist exterior. Boyle could be putting Everett on, or he could either be the smartest or dumbest guy in the room, to paraphrase Everett’s ultimate assessment of his new colleague. While Everett is off following his leads, Boyle begins to uncover deeper layers of corruption that Everett misses by following so-called good information.
The strength of The Guard lies in its script and lead performances and the way the two combine to slowly build Gleeson’s character. I’m a fan of both lead actors. Cheadle’s work speaks for itself, and here he perfectly plays the flabbergasted foil to Boyle’s seemingly bumbling idiocy. But there’s no mistaking that it’s Gleeson’s film. There’s humor in his assumptions, confusion, and in-the-moment honesty, but there’s something else at work here.
If you’ve ever seen The Commitments and watch The Guard, you’ll inevitably recall Jimmy Rabbitte’s (Robert Arkins) line:
“Do you not get it, lads? The Irish are the blacks of Europe. And Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland. And the Northside Dubliners are the blacks of Dublin. So say it once, say it loud: I’m black and I’m proud.”
What writer/director McDonagh is touching on is the reality that racism, classism, and the whole lot come in a variety of forms and often transcends color. There is clear evidence of all those -isms at work in The Guard between Irish characters that I, as an outsider, and even Cheadle’s character, as an outsider, do not fully grasp. That Boyle doesn’t fully get the offensive nature of so many of his questions is evidence that many times racism is a product not only of hatred and bigotry but plain ignorance and blind acceptance of stereotypes. At the same time, McDonagh plays on our own racist assumptions by foiling our expectations. In the middle of Agent Everett’s presentation, Boyle speaks up: “I only thought black lads were drug dealers. And Mexicans. They have a word for them. [Pregnant Pause] Mules. Drug Mules.” When his superior tells him to apologize to Everett for his racist slurs, Boyle responds, “I’m Irish, racism is part of my culture.”
Though on the other side of the law, Gleeson plays a similar character to his turn in In Bruges, one of my favorite films and, coincidentally, directed by McDonagh’s brother Martin. A criminal there, he is a law enforcement officer here with plenty of flaws, or as Roger Ebert wrote in his review, “Gleeson is not an evil cop, just a bad one.” He sleeps with prostitutes, steals from a crime scene (to protect the victim…in a way), and drinks to excess. Yet when other officers get in bed with the opposition, he refuses to participate in the corruption. It is clear that he has a moral code that, while flexible, has its limits. He follows the case to the bitter end, knowing that it could cost him his life, and, if it doesn’t, what life he does have thereafter will be marked. He will forever be on the run from the forces that he knows exist above the mid-level drug dealers he confronts in the end.
While issues of race and class often take a back seat to the plot, they’re still important subtexts. Racism is still an issue everywhere, even in the United States where its first black president campaigns for reelection. Consider the case of the church in Crystal Springs, Mississippi. It’s clear that serious conversations and change still need to take place. There is much work left to do. But around such difficult situations, sometimes you have to laugh to keep from crying. In The Guard, we have a film that makes us laugh and think. A rare treat these days.
The Guard (96 mins.) is rated R for pervasive language, some violence, drug material, and sexual content and is available on DVD.