Sgt. Gerry Boyle, Brendan Gleeson's brilliantly sardonic Irish police officer of "The Guard," describes himself as "the last of the independents."
Like a remote Western hero, he's stationed in rural Galway. He curses forensic experts as "prima donnas," casually samples the drugs found on a fresh body and, when his partner answers "Right away, Sarge!" Doyle rolls his eyes and wonders if he's confused Ireland for Detroit.
The brothers McDonagh surely bear an independent streak, too. "The Guard" is written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, the older brother of the playwright and "In Bruges" writer-director, Martin McDonagh.
They have their differences, of course, but both have a wry, dark sensibility and a fondness for ruthlessly unsentimental absurdity. And both have put the talented Gleeson (who starred in "In Bruges") to fine use.
The craggy-faced Boyle is oddly busy for his country outpost. There's a mysterious murder and his newly transferred partner (Rory Keenan) goes missing. A large drug shipment from the Dominican Republic is expected to land soon on Galway's shores, which brings FBI agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle, who also produces) in hopes of interceding it.
Here, the film's buddy-cop structure takes hold, and a thoroughly entertaining dynamic between Gleeson and Cheadle sets in. Suit-clad and officious, Everett is seemingly Boyle's opposite. Well-educated and professional, Everett represents the American ideals Boyle curses.
Boyle plays the part of country rube, excusing his blatant racism as part of his Irish culture. He does it all in a deadpan that confuses most everyone, but Gleeson's occasional smirks — and his gradually revealed innate decency — make it clear: Boyle is, as he says, "only havin' a bit of fun."
But the two also find unlikely common ground. Jogging in the morning, Everett is startled to meet Boyle coming out of the sea in a wet suit. Though Boyle takes a day off in the middle of the investigation for a visit from two Dublin prostitutes, he's otherwise — like Everett — a good detective who (reluctantly) cares about justice.
A trio of criminals (Mark Strong, Liam Cunningham, David Wilmot) are all lurking, awaiting the shipment. In between easy violence, they banter on philosophy, talking Nietzsche and Bertram Russell.
It's perhaps a bit too Tarantino-esque, but it's reflective of much of "The Guard": characters are rarely all they seem. Boyle, too, works in some high-brow references, saying he never had the patience for any of the Russian novelists, before (fittingly) declaring Gogol the exception.
Peppered throughout "The Guard" are allusions to American police movies and TV shows, the investigative precision of which McDonagh would like to have a hearty laugh at. Boyle, seeing the police officers up from the city, snorts at their cell phones and computers. He has little respect for modern feelings of false superiority (which is to say, American qualities), instead preferring the old standbys: sex, a pint and utter honesty.
As a fish out of water, Cheadle cuts a sharp figure in the raw Irish countryside. He's an excellent straight man to Gleeson, contorting his face into a wide variety of disbelieving reactions to Boyle's idiosyncrasies. But gradually, he's in on the joke, too.
Gleeson, though, gets to have the real fun. The character actor ("Braveheart," "Gangs of New York," several of the "Harry Potter" films) has rarely been given such a chance to offend, curse and mock. (Even Goofy gets it.)
Boyle is a kind of lone gunman of veracity. The excellent Ennio Morricone-style score by the band Calexico only inflates the Western mythical tones.
In temperament, Doyle is perhaps something of a stand-in for McDonagh. He's here making his directorial debut (he wrote 2003's "Ned Kelly") and he feels like an authentic, uncompromising comedic voice.
Some sentiment does sneak in, particularly through the character of Boyle's dying mother (Fionnula Flanagan). But when she heckles a slow-moving resident at her retirement home, it's obvious where her son gets his extreme candor.
Such liveliness is the best quality in "The Guard." In a cinema world so awash in either corporate flatness or high-art pretension, "The Guard" is a proud, foul-mouthed exception.
"The Guard," a Sony Pictures Classics release, is rated R for pervasive language and violence. Running time: 96 minutes. Three stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G — General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG — Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 — Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R — Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 — No one under 17 admitted.