What makes McDonagh's film more than a stripped-down buddy comedy is Boyle's complicated character.
Writer-director John Michael McDonagh is the brother of playwright and filmmaker Martin McDonagh. I mention this because John Michael McDonagh's The Guard plays very much like a sibling, or at least a cousin, to Martin's wonderful In Bruges, even sharing a star, Brendan Gleeson.
He plays Sgt. Gerry Boyle, a small-town police officer in County Galway whose demeanor combines the devil-may-care attitude of a maverick cop with a casual disinterest in crime solving, perhaps the result of years settling provincial disputes. Half-investigating a local murder and a possible disappearance, he crosses paths with Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle), an American FBI agent investigating a drug-trafficking operation.
At this point, the crass white guy and the uptight black guy seem primed to become an unlikely, wisecracking alliance in the tradition of so many buddy-cop movies. But Boyle and Everett don't become traditional buddies; they don't even really work together so much as they continue to intersect, with varying results. In its off-kilter way, The Guard restores honor to the buddy-cop genre by not forcing any of its conventions. This reluctant partnership looks convincing and complex, a more genuine mismatch than the cartoonish dynamic of, say, Riggs and Murtagh from the Lethal Weapon series.
What makes McDonagh's film more than a stripped-down buddy comedy, though, is Boyle's complicated character. He's part yokel, part wiseass, and part thug, yet never appears irredeemable. His mild corruption and regular visits with hookers seem almost sweet-natured in their un-conniving simplicity. Boyle has a way of making comments -- especially to an un-amused Everett in matters of race and class -- that may be his unfiltered thoughts or cheeky exaggerations designed to provoke a reaction, or possibly a bit of both. Everett chews him out, but never abandons him outright, unsure of how seriously this guy should be taken.
McDonagh is similarly tricky to pin down. Though his film is often funny and sometimes violent, he doesn't have his brother's way with weird low-life poetry or black-comic tension. The crime plot ambles along like Boyle, stopping and starting unexpectedly, as characters stumble through twists and turns. Long before Boyle and Everett track down the criminals, we observe the bad guys in cut-away scenes. They almost inhabit a separate movie, with humor just as dark if not darker, about the tediousness of drug trafficking. Clive (Mark Strong) appears particularly impatient, annoyed by the process that leads them to such a sleepy town in the middle of nowhere.
The film doesn't ever fully capitalize on that side story; though funny, it feels more like an obligatory peek at what Boyle and Everett are up against than a thematic reflection that registers beyond plot mechanics. Instead of gaining greater insight into the criminals, or the FBI investigation against them, Boyle trudges into classic Western territory, becoming a lone (anti-)hero standing against difficult odds. It's not a bad angle, as reimagined by McDonagh: Gleeson's scene opposite David Wilmot, playing a trafficker who tries to get the drop on Boyle, is especially masterful, the sneakily casual dialogue equivalent of a high-noon stand-off.
Their backdrop is similarly stylish. McDonagh shoots in rich, saturated colors, infusing the semi-rural surroundings with surprising grit and rough beauty, a chilly, overcast version of the American plains. Though set in a small town, the movie feels big; you get a strong sense not just of the men in conflict, but also of their place in the greater world.
Still, even given McDonagh's striking compositions and funny dialogue (or maybe because of them), comparisons to In Bruges may be inevitable, and unlikely to favor The Guard (this might have been the case even if their creators weren't blood relations). The correct point of reference, though, should be John Michael McDonagh's own clear and promising talent: he's good, and may well become even better.