Buddy cops

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First, a warning: Don’t try this at home. However much it may seem like a piece of cake to build a whole movie around a lazy, lonely, corrupt, faux-racist, foul-mouthed provincial Irish cop, in fact it is a delicate art. Consider The Guard, wherein writer-director John Michael McDonagh, whose brother Martin wrote and directed In Bruges, carries on the family talent for a wry, satisfying Brendan Gleeson action comedy.

Don Cheadle and Brendan Gleeson star in The Guard, a funny new spin on the classic buddy cop film formula.

Here Gleeson and Don Cheadle play reluctant-buddy lawmen—respectively the aforementioned cop and an uptight FBI guy—brought together by a trio of transient drug smugglers (Liam Cunningham, Mark Strong and David Wilmot) whose big plans they hope to thwart. 

It’s boilerplate stuff, with McDonagh even laying on a few tired Tarantino touches here and there. But the casting works, and these actors carry it off with contagious good cheer. The bad guys’ comedically philosophical banter brings them right to the precipice of cliché, for instance, but with enough surety and self-awareness to avoid a catastrophic loss of balance up there.

Really, though, it’s the Gleeson show. He cuts a striking figure as the lumpy disappointment artist with a raw talent for taking the piss out of everyone, including himself. No, that’s not exactly true. He’s kind to the hookers with whom he spends his days off, and to his ailing mom (a puckish Fionnula Flanagan). In any case, Gleeson knows this guy, totally. Meanwhile Cheadle’s touch lets you admire his taste for getting next to Gleeson, whose gruff affect reflects him with wit and warmth.

If this seems like a raw deal for Cheadle, that might be what he likes about it—the challenge. His career trajectory has been hard to predict, and he has a pleasant way of keeping his integrity neatly pressed, like “I was a hero in Hotel Rwanda, you know, but sure, I’ll step in as Iron Man’s second banana.” With that in mind, he seems rightly situated as foil to and gradual friend in The Guard

Maybe setting is everything, too. In this case it’s a groggy backwater in Ireland’s West Country, where the first language is Gaelic and the second is an English variant best exemplified by Gleeson’s own curse-thickened brogue. It becomes clear that the place itself is corrupt, and the cop’s shrugging self-interest something like a natural feature of the landscape. As he carries it, it even begins to seem like a kind of integrity. 

The Guard is shot through with fatalism, but it’s an ironic kind, and that makes a difference. That’s how McDonagh transcends puerile genre games, and why his little movie is so largely entertaining. That’s the delicacy of the art.

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