There’s no reason why “The Guard” shouldn’t be an exceptional movie. It features the wry humor of writer/director and newcomer John Michael McDonagh (brother of Martin, who directed “In Bruges“), who executes a script full of razor-sharp wit, straight-faced racism and tongue-in-cheek references to Ruby Ridge and Waco. Two exceptional actors, Brendan Gleeson (“In Bruges“) and Don Cheadle (“Hotel Rwanda“), deliver these lines with maximum effect, playing off of each other hilariously and giving some of the best comic performances of their respective careers. Yet despite its exceptional pedigree, the film comes off more than a little underwhelming.

The Guard

At the Michigan
Sony Pictures Classics

The film’s script follows the cop drama blueprint that has worked since “Lethal Weapon” — by-the-book FBI agent Wendell Everett (Cheadle), partners with loose cannon Irish policeman Gerry Boyle (Gleeson) to arrest three international drug traffickers and stop a drug shipment worth a half a billion dollars from entering Ireland. Along the way, they slowly bond and come to respect one another as they sort of investigate the crime, drifting nihilistically toward an eventual resolution.

From a plot standpoint, there’s not much to see here. Though the film features cops and criminals, there’s not much casework involved, since, as Everett says, Boyle is “an unconventional policeman.” Instead of the unpredictability of “shoot first, file paperwork later,” Boyle’s a giant idiot who displays mild corruption, wild irresponsibility and a pervasive sense of carelessness. He has a predilection for hookers and a tendency to drink and do LSD on duty. It’s all a little much for Everett, a Rhodes Scholar from a privileged background, functioning as both a foreigner out of his element and Boyle’s strait-laced foil.

The give-and-take between Gleeson and Cheadle is the movie’s greatest strength, helped along by Gleeson’s deadpan, utterly naive, devoid-of-malice comedic timing. Though heavy Irish accents permeate the entire film, occasionally getting in the way of the film’s humor, questions about whether Everett grew up in the projects and preconceived notions about how “only black lads” can be drug dealers come through loud and clear.

These statements (and much, much more) are all shockingly racist, yet in Gleeson’s hands, they sound entirely innocent — not unlike a schoolboy’s curious questions about a controversial topic. At one point, Everett poignantly observes that he can’t tell whether Boyle is “really motherfucking dumb or really motherfucking smart.” In addition to drinking on the job, the man plays kid’s arcade games regularly and suffers from milkshake headaches, yet makes intriguing observations about their case, piecing together facts that Everett’s Quantico-trained mind doesn’t see. It’s impossible to tell whether Boyle is being snarky or genuinely airheaded. Regardless, Gleeson’s delivery and Cheadle’s straight-faced reactions are a pleasure to watch.

Unfortunately, the rest of the film proceeds at a glacial pace. Boyle’s mother is slowly dying in a nursing home and his regular visits are perhaps meant to make Boyle a slightly more sympathetic character, since it’s always easier to like a guy — even a drunk, racist ditz — when he loves his mother. These moments, like the off skits in an episode of “Saturday Night Live,” aren’t quite enough to ruin the film but are enough to severely undermine the experience, turning “The Guard” into something much less than the sum of its parts.

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