Playwright Martin McDonagh (The Beauty Queen of Leenane), who made an exciting transition to film with the crime comedy In Bruges, is one of a kind. His brother John Michael McDonagh is another matter entirely. The screenwriter of Ned Kelly makes his directing debut with The Guard, and this fair writer turns out to be a listless director, substituting heightened production design for wit and generally ripping off Quentin Tarantino. Do you want to hear a cocaine trafficker (the estimable Liam Cunningham) expounding on why Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge? In a ’50s-themed diner? How about seeing a dead man found with a marijuana plant in his lap and “5 1/2” written on the wall in blood, just so Garda (Rory Keenan), a gung-ho rookie from Dublin, can enumerate movies with numbers as titles: Se7en, 9 1/2 Weeks, 12 Monkeys?
Brendan Gleeson (In Bruges) plays Sgt. Gerry Boyle, an eccentric small-town cop in Connemara, County Galway, Ireland, with an appetite for hookers and drugs and little patience for straightlaced FBI agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle), with whom he’s been paired in anticipation of a large shipment of cocaine. Along with the usual buddy-cop friction, Wendell is a fish out of water—a well-educated black man in one of the whitest places on Earth. Meanwhile, Garda goes missing, his Croatian wife (Katarina Cas) is distraught, and Gerry has to go visit his mum (Fionnula Flanagan)—an awkward trope about bad cops being good sons.
The bad guys—the businesslike Francis (Cunningham), the bored Clive (Mark Strong), and the crazy Liam (David Wilmot)—rendezvous at the aquarium so that Clive can muse about sharks. The cops at the station are on the take, and Gerry and Wendell find themselves going it alone.
Gleeson endows Gerry with as much ornery melancholy as the archness allows, while Cheadle does what he can with a one-joke character whose children are incongruously named Stokely and Huey. But their efforts are smothered by McDonagh’s mise-en-scene. The director adopts the wide-screen technique of Westerns, but sets his camera angles sharply high and low, as if to comment ironically on the already ironic proceedings. The colors are deeply saturated, and even the preppy American wears a flowered shirt, patterned vest and pink polka-dot tie on his night off.
The rousing score by the band Calexico—an homage to Ennio Morricone as derivative as anything else in the picture—at least makes for fun listening. But what Sergio Leone did for the Western—making it tougher, more taciturn and more morally ambiguous while recreating the American West in the deserts of Spain—McDonagh fails to do for the violent, pop-culture-obsessed crime comedies of the ’90s. What would it mean to resuscitate a well-worn genre (or two or three) in the lonely moors of western Ireland? McDonagh never begins to consider that question.