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MOVIE REVIEW

The Guard

Gleeson towers over ‘The Guard’

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By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / August 5, 2011

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‘The Guard’’ is little more than a salt-and-pepper cop yarn transposed to the middle of nowhere, Ireland. It has a wickedly smart script that keeps you on your toes, though, and it has from Brendan Gleeson a star performance of cruelly funny mastery. The movie is more pure, profane enjoyment than a body should have in the dog days of August, and when it’s over it evaporates, leaving only the acrid smoke of its dialogue and the memory of Gleeson reducing lesser mortals to cinders.

He plays Connemara police sergeant Gerry Boyle, more or less the whole department until he’s stuck with an earnest young recruit named Aidan (Rory Keenan) early in the going. We’re up in Gaelic country, so the cop cars and uniforms say ‘GARDA’ and very little surprises the local constabulary. “The Guard’’ opens with a horrific car crash that barely disturbs Boyle’s afternoon nap, and pretty soon he’s up to his thick neck in a complicated plot involving drug smugglers, corrupt detectives, a comely Croatian widow, and two happy hookers dressed as police ladies.

And Don Cheadle as Wendell Everett, an American FBI agent on the trail of the smugglers. No, there isn’t any reason for him to be here other than as an increasingly amused foil to the hero. The Irish cops know that a fellow like Boyle, smarter than any three of them put together but generally his own worst enemy, is best marginalized. Wendell, by contrast, is fascinated. “I can’t tell if you’re really [expletive] dumb or really [expletive] smart,’’ he marvels after Gerry has informed him that the only place in America he has visited is Disney World - by himself.

“The Guard’’ is built from the bones of all those great old Raymond Chandler crime novels that got turned into great old Humphrey Bogart movies: A lone honest man taking on the tarnished wheels of justice, etc., etc. The skin on those bones comes from Tarantino, sometimes too obviously. When the three smugglers - an engagingly lethal crew played by Liam Cunningham, David Wilmot, and Mark Strong - start arguing over their favorite philosophers during a getaway, you know someone has seen “Pulp Fiction’’ a few dozen too many times.

That fallen archness extends to the soundtrack choices, impeccably retro in their own right (Chet Baker, “Ode to Billie Joe,’’ some original spaghetti-western stylings by the US rock group Calexico) but a tad oppressive in their cumulative hipness. If you stand far enough back from “The Guard’’ you can easily see all the pieces bolting the thing together.

The man doing the bolting is John Michael McDonagh, whose better-known brother, executive producer Martin McDonagh, has written plays (“The Lieutenant of Inishmore,’’ “The Pillowman’’) and written and directed one feature film (2008’s “In Bruges’’) that, taken together, have positioned him as one of the sharper saviors of Irish letters. “In Bruges’’ also starred Gleeson but had a friskier sense of invention and a much broader emotional range. “The Guard,’’ in comparison, is thinner stuff, although shot with an eye for rich, unexpected colors by Larry Smith.

So why does the movie send you out happier than you have any right to be? Why am I gladly grading it on the curve? For the character of Gerry Boyle, for the way he speaks, and for Gleeson’s unholy inhabiting of the role. Although he’d never admit it, the Sergeant is well-read, maybe even an intellectual, and he’s good to his dying mum (Fionnula Flanagan; Gleeson towers over her like Kong over Fay Wray). He also has his pleasures, both carnal and pharmaceutical, and he doesn’t much care who knows it. If the Bad Lieutenant converted to Buddhism, he might look a little like this.

Gerry also knows that whatever the people in charge do, the results will be infinitely worse. Whether that exhausted pessimism is part of the Irish national character or part of the Irish national stereotype is immaterial; Gleeson turns it into an oddly liberating lifestyle choice, freeing the cop to act as he pleases, even morally. Is “The Guard’’ really [expletive] dumb or really [expletive] smart? You’ll be having too good a time to care.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. To follow him, go to www.twitter.com/tyburr.

THE GUARD

Written and directed by: John Michael McDonagh

Starring: Brendan Gleeson, Don Cheadle, Mark Strong, Fionnula Flanagan, Rory Keenan

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 96 minutes

Rated: R (pervasive language, some violence, drug material, sexual content)

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