(John Michael McDonagh, 2011)
In the years immediately following the release of Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino's influence on cinema was massive. Mainstream action blockbusters got sidetracked by scenes where characters discussed pop culture minutae. Every single low-budget crime film tried to play with pulp conventions by utilising quirky takes on archetypes or infusing stockly generic situations with a sort of realism. It didn't last long, however. Tarantino is hard to get right - he himself has struggled in a couple of works since - and a film can look thoroughly pawltry if it tries and fails to ape his work.
But in another way, Tarantino has been internalized by pop culture. When a film combines crime thriller plot elements with blackly comic dialogue, seemingly random cultural references and some homages to classic or cultish cinema, the audience has a point of reference. Nobody is confused by this mixture. In theatre, Martin McDonagh has made such a mix his own in a series of savage, hilarious plays mainly set in the West of Ireland. He softened that sensibility for his first feature, In Bruges. Now his brother, John Michael McDonagh makes his debut as writer-director, and there is a definite family resemblance.
The Guard is a crime thriller with more laughs than thrills, and adds to its quietly Tarantino-esque pleasures an inimitably Irish viewpoint which gives it a refreshing, soulful quality also present in In Bruges. It shares a star with that film, and Brendan Gleeson is terrific here; suggesting the depth and ambiguity of his Galway Police Sergeant inside his first scene but always funny, charismatic and entertaining to watch. He also has abundant chemistry with Don Cheadle as the fish-out-water FBI Officer stunned by his attitude.
The Guard, Cheadle aside, is incredibly Irish, as if McDonagh set out to reflect the moods and variety of the country and its people in his film, which is melancholy yet jolly, coal black yet hilarious, violent yet tender, warm yet stoic in the face of strong emotion, rambling, foul-mouthed, literate yet cinematic, bawdy, witty and even a little moving.
It has a sure feel for the landscape and language of the Irish West, bleakly empty and beautiful and filled with slyly, dryly funny eccentrics. McDonagh fills it with big 'scope images of the yawning skies above Connemara and its expanses of green stretching off to the horizon, his figures isolated in corners of the large frame. The obvious Leone reference is underlined by the Morricone pastiche of the soundtrack, which in turn points up the big Western-style moral choice of the climax, when Gleeson's Boyle has a "man's gotta do" moment.
Perhaps surprisingly, the Western echoes fit snugly alongside McDonaghs terrific dialogue, which allows Drug smugglers to quote Nietzsche, reference Bertrand Russell and ponder the lyrics of "Ode to Billy Joe", while Boyle himself discusses Gogol and listens to Chet Baker.
The supporting cast is excellent, with such reliable actors as Liam Cunningham and Mark Strong offering casually great work and plainly loving McDonagh's writing.
In the end, the funny stuff stops and there is gunplay, death and reckoning. Yet somehow, McDonagh makes that work too. His first film is a rousingly satisfying experience and suggests that he may have a fine, fascinating career awaiting him.