Sgt. Gerry Boyle is not your typical Irish country constable. At least, let's hope not.

Cheerfully corrupt and seasoned with cynicism, Boyle - played with rumpled aplomb by the great and girthful Brendan Gleeson - is essentially a man out for himself. When a new recruit joins the tiny Connemara station, disturbing Boyle's slothful reveries and routines, he makes no effort to hide his annoyance. The young officer brings his sergeant a cup of coffee. Boyle tosses it. He only drinks lattes.

Hasten to a homicide. There's discussion about the meaning of the number 5 1/2 scrawled in blood on the wall over the corpse - a corpse holding a flower pot. Reference is made to Fellini's 81/2, to the thriller Seven, and a discussion of films with numeric titles ensues.

"The significance of the potted plant has me somewhat perplexed," Boyle adds as an afterthought, deadpanning like some County Galway Columbo.

Like his younger brother, Martin McDonagh - the playwright and filmmaker whose gleefully dark In Bruges also starred Gleeson - John Michael McDonagh has a gift for mixing comically absurd banter with the bloody business of police and gangsters. If The Guard, which marks the older McDonagh's film debut, doesn't quite attain the lofty levels of maniacally ingenious discourse achieved by his sibling, it's nonetheless rich with inspired musings on pop culture, literature, philosophy, race, sex.

And the character of Boyle - a piece of work, to say the least - stays with you: There's ultimately something noble and right about this determinedly debauched and sardonic gent. Gleeson is nothing short of magnificent.

Boyle's unexpected sidekick in The Guard isn't that eager garda. It's an FBI agent from the States - an African American FBI agent from the States - played with apt quizzicality by Don Cheadle. Agent Wendell Everett is on the hunt for a gang of drug smugglers, and believes they will be using a port on Ireland's west coast to make their drop. Boyle disrupts Everett's police briefing to engage in some flagrant race baiting - just for the fun of it. (Boyle's defense: "I'm Irish - racism is part of our culture.")

And then the two men, begrudgingly, partner up in pursuit of the trio of murderous drug runners (Mark Strong, Liam Cunningham, and David Wilmot). Despite Boyle and Everett's cultural and ethnic differences - not to mention opposing work ethics - bonds are formed, a friendship founded.

McDonagh has said that he looked to both the westerns of John Ford and the comedies of Preston Sturges for inspiration in writing The Guard, and to be sure, Gleeson's title character has something of the stoic moral gravity of a classic cowboy hero.

And to be sure, the rat-tat-tat and ricocheting you hear in The Guard are not just coming from guns. The dialogue is smart, screwball, sublime.


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies/