Think of The Guard not as a crime thriller, but as an Irish neo-noir western. It's set in the backwaters of modern Galway with Brendan Gleeson doing a dry comedy riff on John Wayne as lawman Sgt Gerry Boyle. It groans heavy with the type of gallows humour that permeates recent Irish films like Perrier's Bounty and In Bruges and though it lacks the sophistication of the latter film (from writer-director John Michael McDonagh's renowned brother Martin), it neatly encapsulates the sort of spirited nonchalance that only comes from living under permanently grey skies.
Like the Westerns of old, our hero has a simple moral code, verging on stupidly so. He only wants to put away the bad guys and let the hookers mind their own business. These women, after all, provide him with a necessary service. When debonair FBI agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle) comes to town to lead an investigation into transatlantic drug smugglers, Boyle blunts his Powerpoint presentation with good old-fashioned horse sense on the best way to proceed and throws in a few blank observations on Everett's black heritage, casting him - no offence - as someone who must have had close association with drug dealers.
In fact, Everett is a highly refined, buttoned-down character, which sets the scene for some politically edgy cop buddy antics. Those laughs comes in sharp relief to the gory murder that opens the film (the tone set by a junior cop's unlikely theories on the crime) and which appears to be linked to an imminent shipment of drugs. Boyle and Everett put their heads together and mostly give each other a migraine. Still there's an obvious point of understanding between the two. As the plot unfolds, it becomes clear they may be the only cops in Galway who aren't taking backhanders from the mob and they soldier on relentlessly to what looks like a suicidal last stand.
Cheadle has the brilliant knack of looking offended without appearing too precious. The slights are, of course, unintended and Gleeson remains a powerful hero because he sticks to his guns (often backed by a gung-ho orchestral score). Mark Strong is on bad guy duty again as a weary mob middleman, but he gives the part a post-modern spin, bemoaning the fact that 'a man's gotta do...' Like most go-getters who end up in middle management, he's fed up of the greasy handshakes and murky office politics. There's an ominous sense that all of these men are cornered, doomed by a macho idealism that means they must follow through even when all seems lost.
The final showdown is at once rousing and absurd as Doyle draws upon his fabled (or faked?) past as an Olympic swimmer, but John Michael McDonagh doesn't plumb the depths of his characters with quite the same flair. Unlike brother Martin, he deals in subverted archetypes who act out a destiny that seems preordained, never allowing a moment's pause to look inward at what drives them on. Still, they are drawn with great affection and McDonagh's fondness for genre clichés is also evident, even as he sends them up. The quietly gleeful turns from the leading players also make this a likeable bit of mischief instead of just a soulless exercise in genre-mashing. A great Freudian gag concerning a tiny pistol sums up a film that shoots from the hip.