Don’t worry if you haven’t heard of this one. Even I hadn’t heard of it until I checked my local listings to see what was playing at the Fox Tower. After learning of its intriguing pedigree and stellar RottenTomatoes rating, I just had to see for myself what this movie was about.

As it turns out, the premise of The Guard is quite simple. The story is about a boorish, unorthodox cop in rural Ireland who has to work with an American FBI agent to bring down an international drug-smuggling ring. It’s an old premise, with a combination of three classic genres: Crime thriller, buddy cop, and “fish out of water.” Still, there are a variety of things that keep this movie fresh.

First of all, this is quite clearly a foreign production through and through. This is a movie made by the Irish for the Irish, so the proceedings are seen through an Irish point of view. As such, the fish in our “fish out of water” story is Wendell Everett, our FBI agent. The story of an American city boy getting into cultural misunderstadings with country bumpkins is hardly a new one, except that this movie takes the side of the latter. There’s one scene in which Wendell is overtly called an idiot because he didn’t know anything about the place he was going to be working in (which is admittedly a valid point). Though to be fair, it isn’t like Wendell is portrayed as stupid or incompetent, just comically unable to carry a conversation in Gaelic.

Of course, that door swings both ways, and this is another method that the film utilizes to keep its conceit fresh. I’ll give you an example: Early in the movie, Sergeant Gerry Boyle — the true star of this movie, played by Brendan Gleeson — is debriefed about the drug-smuggling situation, and he’s shocked to see the mug shots of the responsible masterminds. They’re all white, you see, and Gerry was under the impression that drug smugglers were all black or Hispanic. You could call it racist — as some characters immediately do — but there’s another issue at play here. To wit, there are many times in the film when Gerry talks about how American police are portrayed on TV and in movies.

Put simply, Gerry thinks and talks in stereotypes. Aside from one trip to the States — to visit Disneyland without any friends or family present — all he knows about America is what he’s seen through the media. Considering today’s prominence of American xenophobia and cultural misunderstanding, I found it refreshing to see the tables turned in such a way. Best of all, Gerry’s attitude seems borne entirely of ignorance, and he seems completely unaware of just how wrong he is. Or maybe he’s just playing dumb to joke around, it’s hard to tell. Add in Wendell to act as a sounding board, and the cultural disconnect is very humorous without ever being mean-spirited.

This brings me to yet another thing that makes this movie unique: Its humor. In one aspect, the humor is very clever in how sarcastic and deadpan it is. Perhaps my favorite example comes from one of the drug dealers, immediately after they kill someone. In this scene, the villains establish themselves as cold-blooded killers who are legitimate threats, even though they squabble afterwards about who’s going to hide the body. “You do it,” says one of them. “When I became a drug smuggler, no one told me ‘Must have experience in heavy lifting.'” That line might easily have come off as wimpy or complaining, except that it was delivered by Mark Strong.

Yes, Mark Strong is in this movie, and he’s playing a British bad guy. What a shocker, right? This time, Strong is playing one of three partners in a drug business, all of whom are equally inept in their own ways. Imagine Frank D’Amico from Kick-Ass with a few shades of Moe from the Three Stooges and you’d be getting close. Naturally, Strong is amazing as always to watch.

As for Don Cheadle (who’s also credited as an exec producer, strangely enough), his job is primarily to play “straight man” against all the Irish stupidity and bigotry around him. It’s a role Cheadle plays quite well, with no shortage of comedic timing (his exchange with Gerry during the climax is priceless). Even better,Wendell is given enough screen time and dialogue for Cheadle to make a three-dimensional character out of him. Still, Wendell is a very distant second to the eponymous guard.

Brendan Gleeson obviously had a ball playing Sergeant Gerry Boyle, and his performance elevates the entire movie. Here’s a policeman who’s crude, politically incorrect, abrasive, and openly insubordinate, yet his heart is in the right place and he’s still a good cop. He was also born and raised in the Irish countryside, which does a lot to explain his scorn for “big city” types. What’s more, the character isn’t malicious. He’s just blunt as a bulldozer, constantly saying whatever’s on his filthy mind without any degree of sugar-coating. This honesty makes him sympathetic, not to mention very funny as well.

Also, he has a dying mother. A cheap trick to give a character emotional depth, I know, but it helps that the mother — played by Fionnula Flanagan — has several funny scenes and lines in her own right.

There’s also the moral aspect to Gerry, which certainly merits consideration. When the character is introduced, he lets a few drunken teenagers crash to their doom, rather than pull them over. He then samples some of their drugs and throws the rest away. Add in a night with some hookers later on, and this is clearly a cop who’s corrupt to some degree. Yet he’s still a devoted cop, so just how crooked is he? When the villains start bribing cops, which side will Gerry fall on? The character is very unpredictable, which makes him an effective protagonist who’s interesting to watch.

In case you haven’t already guessed, this movie is very small and extremely character-based. This is the film’s greatest strength, and also its biggest flaw. In this age, a buddy cop movie about an international drug-smuggling ring would normally be much more bombastic, with a bigger scope and louder action. As it is, the movie only has one action scene in the climax, and its execution is frankly quite boring.

On the other hand, this character focus is also what sets the movie apart from the usual Brett Ratner fare. The movie traded loud action for characters with depth, which was definitely much better-suited for the film’s low budget. Additionally, audiences have become so jaded toward CGI and car stunts (especially in this overbearingly loud summer), that going for the diametric opposite approach was probably a smart move. In fact, this movie is only 96 minutes long, making it shorter and far better-paced than most of this year’s blockbusters. Of course, it also helps that the main cast is extremely talented and the writing is wonderfully sharp.

For instance, there’s the ending. The climax sets the movie up perfectly for your typical Hollywood ending, but then delivers something else. Instead, the ending turns out to be one of the best-crafted and most satisfying ambiguous resolutions that I’ve seen for quite some time. It has a few meta elements, which is certainly a plus, but what really sells it is the connection to Gerry’s characterization. The ending is left open to interpretation because the intelligence and integrity of Gerry is open to interpretation. Either outcome is possible, and either outcome would make for a great ending. Genius.

The Guard has some very awkward camerawork and editing at times, but the writing and acting are both great to watch. It’s a very funny movie with some wonderfully three-dimensional characters. The action is sorely lacking, but those who are looking for over-the-top action will be watching the wrong movie. Those who are looking for a small, slice-of-life story that effectively brings its characters to life should definitely seek this one out.