The Guard and Calvary writer-director John Michael McDonagh seems to have set himself a creative challenge with his first US feature, War On Everyone. How do you make two borderline sociopathic renegade cops in any way likeable by the end of the movie? In McDonagh’s favour, he’s cast an effortlessly charismatic actor in one of the leads: Michael Peña, who plays bad cop number one Bob Bolaño.
Standing alongside him, hunched over into an uncomfortable looking position to better fit into the frame, is the chiselled Alexander Skarsgard as Terry, a wild-eyed, hard-drinking bruiser who specialises in knocking bad guys out with one punch. War On Everyone opens with Bob and Terry careening along in the latter’s classic muscle car in hot pursuit of a perp who happens to be a mime artist. This allows Bob to deliver the first of many wry quips: “If a mime gets hit by a car, does he make a sound?”
That’s not a bad gag, but like so much in War On Everyone, it’s a contrivance – a non-sequitur in a film packed full of one-liners, sight jokes and general bad taste designed to entertain in the moment rather than add much to the story. Why is Bob carrying one of those lucky waving Chinese cats in one scene? Because it looks funny. Why are there two women in burqas playing tennis with Skarsgard? So McDonagh can drop in a line about jihad.
There’s nothing wrong with scattershot comedy, but after The Guard, which so memorably transferred the staples of the buddy-cop thriller genre to sleepy western Ireland, War On Everyone feels disappointingly like a series of tic-filled characters and odd scenarios scrabbling around for a story.
That story sees Bob and Terry – who in classic 70s and 80s style are constantly being bawled at by an angry chief (Paul Reiser) for their violent exploits – on the trail of a corrupt businessman and porn baron (played by Theo James) and his army of goons, which includes Caleb Landry Jones as an effete, fuzzy-haired sidekick who looks like the genetic splicing of Scorpio out of Dirty Harry and Leo Sayer. Along the way, Terry has his head turned by an ex-stripper, Jackie (Tessa Thompson), while Bob balances his non-career in the police force with his life at home, which entails insulting his kids, breaking their games consoles and engaging in quasi-philosophical discussions with his wife, Delores (Stephanie Sigman).
War On Everyone riffs voraciously on 70s thrillers and, reaching further back, the same kinds of hardboiled detective stories that have long fired Shane Black’s imagination. Where McDonagh’s film partly falls down is in failing to establish an air of malaise in its modern-day Albuquerque. Movies like The French Connection and the aforementioned Dirty Harry worked because their anti-heroes’ violence and jaded natures were set against a backdrop of social disintegration. In other words, Dirty Harry was a nasty cop for a nasty city.
The city presented in War On Everyone has its fair share of sleaze – grubby bars, drugs, informants and so on – but there’s little in the way of danger to be found here. Instead, the most dangerous people in the city seem to be Bob and Terry, who actively enjoy bullying, belittling and brutalising whoever crosses their path. If they’re tortured souls – and there’s a half-hearted suggestion somewhere in the middle that Terry is – they don’t exactly suffer for their jobs. They live in unaccountably expensive houses and openly mock their fellow officers who actually try to be decent cops.
McDonagh’s too accomplished a writer and director to not land at least a few outright laughs, and for some, the politically-incorrect jokes and retro 70s stylings will be enough to justify the cost of a cinema ticket. But for this writer, the barbs aimed at homosexual and transgender characters feel too harsh for comfort, and coupled with the brutal violence – more often than not meted out by the heroes rather than the villains – leave a bitter aftertaste.
The self-consciously hip dialogue has its characters banter about art, classical literature, Greek mythology and Buddhism. There’s one name-drop conspicuous by its absence here: the Objectivist philosopher Ayn Rand. Like the characters in her novels, Bob and Terry’s actions are driven exclusively by their own self-interest. Compassion is a joke, the law is meaningless. Only their personal wealth – and the safety of the partners they’ve chosen to protect – is of any concern to them.
Everyone else – the weak, the fat, the bald, the short, the ugly, the foreign, the disabled – are of no consequence. If this is the true meaning behind the movie’s title, then War On Everyone is a bleak comedy indeed.
War On Everyone is out in UK cinemas on the 7th October.