Action, Alexander Skarsgård, Comedy, Corrupt cops, Crime, Drama, John Michael McDonagh, Michael Peña, New Mexico, Review, Tessa Thompson, Theo James, Thriller
D: John Michael McDonagh / 98m
Cast: Michael Peña, Alexander Skarsgård, Theo James, Tessa Thompson, Malcolm Barrett, Caleb Landry Jones, Stephanie Sigman, David Wilmot, Paul Reiser
Do you like your cops as corrupt as the criminals they arrest/steal from? Do you like to see cops misuse their position and betray your trust in them at every turn? And do you like them to have so little regard for your (or anyone else’s) dignity or safety that they’d hit a mime with their car just to see if he yells in pain? Well, if you only answered yes to that last question, then War on Everyone is the movie for you. It’s a buddy cop movie where the cops in question, Detectives Bob Bolaño (Peña) and Terry Monroe (Skarsgård), will do everything they possibly can to screw over everyone they meet, be it their long-suffering boss, Lt. Stanton (Reiser), or one of their stoolpigeons, Reggie (Barrett), or just about anyone operating on the wrong side of the law (like them).
When news reaches them that a big heist is being planned, naturally Bob and Terry want to know all about it so they can grab the money once the robbers have done all the hard work. But the man planning the heist is a shadowy figure they’ve not encountered before, and the details are equally shadowy; all they have are the men who’ll be involved but not the location or where the money is to be taken. With Reggie managing to get himself the getaway driver’s job, Bob and Terry think they’ve got it all worked out: follow Reggie, grab the cash at the earliest opportunity, and head off to somewhere foreign with no extradition arrangement with the US. But of course, nothing goes to plan, and Bob and Terry find themselves up against a British aristocrat called “Lord” James Mangan (James), the mastermind behind the heist, and someone who doesn’t take kindly to their efforts to hijack the robbery and take most of the money.
After the relatively sombre and restrained The Guard (2011) and Calvary (2014), writer/director John Michael McDonagh has decided to cut loose – and quite a bit – with this tale of two ultra-corrupt cops that’s set in New Mexico, is bolstered by the inclusion of Glen Campbell on the soundtrack, and which has a very gritty Seventies vibe to it. War on Everyone is also extremely funny in places, as you’d expect from McDonagh, and there are a plethora of laugh-out-loud moments to keep the audience happy and the script from seeming too formulaic. McDonagh is great at creating a world for his dysfunctional characters to inhabit, and the bright, airy spaces of New Mexico are used to good effect to create a surprisingly natural background for the absurdities that unfold in the foreground.
The plot, such as it is, is acceptable without pushing any boundaries or bringing anything new to the table, and McDonagh is keen to highlight the fact that he knows this, and that the audience should just go along with it. It’s Bob and Terry who are the movie’s real focus, even though their relationship – built as ever on mutual trust and respect while everyone else (bar Bob’s family) is fair game – is one we’re meant to enjoy for its verbal jousting and the pair’s unspoken dependence on each other. Only when it seems that Bob has run out of luck do we see how much Terry depends on him as both a partner and a friend. But in keeping with the characters’ macho exteriors, it’s a necessarily brief glance – and then back to the action.
With McDonagh having established the bond that unites these two latter-day Robin Hoods (only difference: they don’t give to the poor), he adds subplots and secondary characters to flesh out the drama, but in the process and with the exception of Landry Jones’ twitchy portrayal of Mangan’s right hand man, Birdwell, never quite manages to make them as memorable as they need to be. Despite sending Mangan (literally) on an acid trip that’s designed more to show off some fancy camera moves and elaborate staging than to look into the mind of the character, the villain is essentially colourless and in the end, easily dealt with. Likewise, Terry’s love interest, Jackie (Thompson), who he places under his own personal protection and who he promptly falls in love with. Jackie’s a sweet enough character, and as a counterpoint to all the cynicism on display elsewhere she fits the bill, but McDonagh doesn’t develop her in any way, and she remains a frustrating caricature: the girl who needs to be rescued.
As the two felons with badges, Peña and Skarsgård make a great team. Peña is the erudite, well-read partner who can quote from the Greek classics, and who realises that they can’t keep doing what they’re doing indefinitely (it doesn’t help that he looks a little like a Latino version of the British movie critic Mark Kermode). Skarsgård brings the muscle, folding in on himself a lot of the time and accentuating his forehead, as if he’s about to use it as a battering ram. He’s the more dangerous of the two, unpredictable, and Skarsgård projects just the right amount of bottled-up menace that the role requires. Together the two stars are a joy to watch, and McDonagh ensures that their camaraderie is entirely believable, even when he takes them out of their New Mexico comfort zone and sends them off to Iceland to track down an absconded Reggie.
Making his first feature away from Ireland, McDonagh shows a confidence in his decision that isn’t supported by the way he handles the material, and on this occasion McDonagh the director doesn’t know quite what to do to combat the problems inherent in McDonagh the writer’s screenplay. But the movie is an enjoyable one for the most part, provided the viewer keeps their expectations to a minimum; then they might be pleasantly surprised by Bob and Terry’s antics, and also more invested in how things turn out. One area where the movie can’t be faulted is in its cinematography, courtesy of the very talented Bobby Bukowski, whose previous movies include Rosewater (2014) and The Iceman (2012). Thanks to his efforts, War on Everyone is often beautiful to look at, and he keeps the camera moving in ways that are often very inventive – and often without the viewer realising it.
Rating: 7/10 – at times a raucous, freewheeling movie with plenty of buzz about it, War on Everyone can’t sustain it’s initial set up for very long, and McDonagh’s script loses its freshness around the halfway mark; good performances from Peña and Skarsgård help things immeasurably, but this has to go down as a missed opportunity from McDonagh, but not so bad that his next movie won’t be as highly anticipated as this one was.