“I can’t tell if you’re really motherfucking dumb or really motherfucking smart,” FBI agent Don Cheadle tells Brendan Gleeson, a cop in west Ireland with whom he’s reluctantly tracking some big-time drug dealers who’ve set up shop in the Galway region. It’s possible to leave The Guard wondering the same thing. Gleeson plays a bad cop by any definition. After watching a car full of hopped-up thrill-seekers crash in the opening scene, he casually relieves one of the corpses of its drugs for his own use. A few moments later, he’s disrupting a murder scene filled with clues that point to a serial killer on the loose. And yet, for everything Gleeson does wrong, he also somehow feels like the right man for the job, if only because of the few lines he refuses to cross. He’s unreflectively corrupt, but so is the world that shaped him. Sometimes, the film suggests, being a good guy just means being a little better than everyone else.
Binding Gleeson’s character to an extremely flexible code of honor is just one way writer-director John Michael McDonagh—brother of director Martin McDonagh, whose film In Bruges also starred Gleeson—tweaks expectations. It’s a buddy-cop movie in which the cops seem like they’d be better off not being buddies, and a fish-out-of-water story in which Cheadle’s unfailingly professional fish never learns how to breathe the air of his hostile new surroundings. Cheadle is relentlessly goaded by Gleeson, who hides behind an I’m-just-an-ignorant-Irishman expression while asking whether he grew up in the projects. Cheadle’s patience is continually tested, both by his new partner and by his Irish hosts, who seem none too interested in sniffing out the criminals in their midst.
Though Cheadle is good as a man pushed to his breaking point at every moment, the movie belongs to Gleeson, who keeps his character enigmatic even while engaging in every possible act of slovenly excess and gross negligence. That focus means The Guard never gains a sense of momentum, and Gleeson’s unforced performance makes his antagonists—a band of criminals who trade Nietzsche quotes and discuss the merits of Bertrand Russell—seem overwritten by comparison. But focusing the film on Gleeson was certainly the right choice. His performance is equal parts funny and unnerving, and he keeps viewers guessing about what drives the man and what he’ll do next. McDonagh lets those questions propel the film, matching his hero’s murkiness to the unfamiliar surroundings of some of Ireland’s less-traveled parts. It’s easy to get lost in Gleeson’s corner of the world. He might even be a little lost himself.