Director: John Michael McDonagh
Starring: Alexander Skarsgård, Michael Pena, Theo James, Tessa Thompson, Paul Reiser
With his third film, War on Everyone, writer-director John Michael McDonagh steps away from his customary Irish setting, and from his burgeoning collaboration with veteran actor Brendan Gleeson, to offer us a dark and violent satire which gives an outsider’s view of American police justice.
Terry Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård) and Bob Bolano (Michael Pena) are ethically questionable detectives. Scratch that. They are entirely unethical detectives. Terry became a cop because “you get to shoot people for no reason.” Bob is returning from suspension after assaulting a fellow police officer. Both use blackmail and violence to make sure no criminal in their jurisdiction gets away without giving them a kickback. The duo get word of a planned racetrack heist, and are keen to get in on the action. But when the heist ends in a bloodbath, it becomes apparent that the man behind it is not their usual caliber of perp. As their investigation proceeds to uncover a child pornography ring, the question becomes how much can this bad cop-bad cop pair be confronted with before their latent morality supersedes their self-interest?
War on Everyone takes McDonagh away from the Irish setting that was so important to both The Guard and Calvary. The result is the feeling that something is missing: namely that strong sense of place with which he imbued his previous work. There can be value in providing an outsider’s perspective on a location or a people. It can shine a light on something those on the inside might not be aware of, or might prefer not to accentuate. But that insight isn’t really offered here. This satirical take on American law enforcement is peppered with jokes about police brutality and racism, but doesn’t land on a specific point of view, and the Albuquerque on display in War on Everyone lacks that authenticity which would have helped ground what is otherwise quite an over the top story.
Of course, this takes nothing away from critical darling McDonagh’s gifts as a writer of dialogue. He is the blackest of black comedy writers and his words here are as sharp as ever. Bob and Terry are fast-talking cops. As the film commences with a scene in which they chase down a drug dealing mime, you find yourself needing to take a moment to get up to the pace of the dialogue. Yet while you can’t help but laugh at some of the more biting takedowns they deliver – whether directed at hardened criminals or Bob’s overweight children – at some point it occurs to you that you don’t actually like either of these guys.
Skarsgård, sporting an awkward hunch to disguise his impressive physique, and Pena, revelling in the opportunity to play a leading role worthy of his talent, both appear to be enjoying playing these characters. But verging on nihilist, the characters are difficult to identify with because they simply don’t seem to care about anything. As such, War on Everyone lacks the humanity that made The Guard and Calvary so powerful, and gave them moral heft despite their equally dark irreverence and political-correctness-be-damned bravado.
McDonagh has described it as a comedic version of The French Connection, but for War on Everyone is probably better described as a movie for those people who wanted Shane Black’s buddy-noir The Nice Guys to be darker and even less mainstream. It is tough, well performed and, at times, quite sharp, but it ultimately falls short of the high bar that John Michael McDonagh has set for himself in his short career. While its surface is funny and engaging, it feels slightly hollow, relying too heavily on shock value in place of genuine substance.
Review by Duncan McLean
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