PARK CITY - If "The Guard" feels like it shares some DNA with 2008's Oscar nominated crime drama "In Bruges," it comes by those similarities honestly.
 
"The Guard," which premiered this week in the Sundance Film Festival's World Dramatic competition, marks the feature debut of writer-director John Michael McDonagh, brother of "In Bruges" writer-director Martin McDonagh. 
 
While "In Bruges" focused on a pair of dislocated hit-men experiencing alienation and ennui in Belgium, "The Guard" looks to the other side of the law, starring Brendan Gleeson as a peculiar small-town Irish cop whose life gets turned upside down when a murder and an international drug-smuggling operation bring an FBI agent (Don Cheadle) into his life.
 
"The Guard" is a fish-out-of-water story, an upside-down Irish Western, a crime drama, a diabolically self-aware comedy and a marvelously acted character study. It comes equipped with a smart, sparkling sense of fun and at only 96 minutes, it's the rare film that knows when to sign off without wearing out its welcome. In fact, as was the case with "In Bruges" (and with Martin McDonagh's plays), "The Guard" creates a world you wouldn't mind spending more time in.
 
More after the break...
 
Back in the summer, I went on a four or five review rant about TV shows that don't have a clue how to properly introduce their main characters. It's a serious problem that wasn't isolated to summer cable dramas. Go to the dreadful pilot of NBC's apparent hit "Harry's Law" and check out how David E. Kelley introduces us to Kathy Bates' character by having a character we'll never see again explain her exact situation and pathology in one clunky "Let's get this out of the way" monologue. It's just awful.
 
In contrast, without spoiling anything, I'd recommend writers check out the opening minute of "The Guard" to see how Gleeson's Sergeant Gerry Boyle is first presented, a pre-credit scene that establishes Boyle's morbid humor, his questionable sense of decorum and ethics and the unflappable complacency that has set in after years on the job.
 
McDonagh has written a story where everything has to be filtered through Boyle's process and through the sometimes baffling question of whether he's a buffoon or whether he's a brilliant charlatan who takes pleasure in making people think he's stupid, or uncouth or unfit for the job. Boyle jokingly calls himself, "The Last of the Independents" and there's little doubt that he and McDonagh share a pleasure for constantly surprisingly the audience and for never becoming too comfortable with any character choice. 
 
It's a dream part for Gleeson and he has a splendid supporting cast to play off of. Cheadle's presence plays off of the convention of fish-out-of-water dramas, as we keep expecting that he'll have a moment where he comes to completely understand Boyle and his surroundings, but those moments never come, or at least not in quite the way we expect. The impatient, confused banter between the two excellent actors is a pleasure to watch. 
 
Gleeson's performance and Boyle's character get a touch of depth in his relationship with his ailing mother (Fionnula Flanagan), but even those scenes are clever enough not to take the drama too seriously.
 
Adding both menace and hyper-literate humor are the trio of criminals played by the incomparable Liam Cunningham, the ubiquitous Mark Strong (giving his best tough-guy performance since Hollywood passed the informal regulation that all franchise movies must feature Strong as the heavy) and the reliably cooky David Wilmot, characters introduced in the midst of a lengthy discussion about their favorite philosophers.
 
Everybody in "The Guard" has a familiarity with American movies and TV shows and they appreciate the language and conventions of the genre they find themselves in. The movie includes meta discussion of APBs, the FBI's Behavioral Science Unit, racial profiling and the necessity of counting money provided for a payoff. The characters have expectations for this entire caper and McDonagh enjoys playing up and subverting those expectations.
 
"The Guard" is definitely driven by McDonagh's profane, measured dialogue and by the character of Boyle, but it also contains a commentary on Irish regionalism and different local and international approaches to law enforcement, not that it gets bogged down in subtext. Similarly, as a director, McDonagh's greatest interest is in the preservation and presentation of the specifically rhythmic dialogue, though he's not above using Gleeson's bear-ish screen persona for a variety of site gags. He doesn't let go visually until the climax, which is a goofy, over-the-top treat. 
 
I keep mentioning "In Bruges" and Martin McDonagh even serves as an executive producer on "The Guard," but that's only meant as a compliment to a film with a similar voice, rather than to imply slavish mimicry. I could just as easily suggest that "The Guard" is "Hot Fuzz" by way of "Local Hero." No matter your points of reference, you can be sure that "The Guard" is a Sundance movie that'll play well outside of Park City, assuming it gets the proper treatment from whichever company wins its distribution rights.