WAR ON EVERYONE

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: John Michael McDonagh

Stars: Alexander Skarsgard, Michael Pena, Theo James, Tessa Thompson, Caleb Landry Jones, Zion Rain Leyba, Malcolm Barrett, Paul Reiser, Stephanie Sigman.
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Irish playwright turned filmmaker John Michael McDonagh has given us a couple of powerful dramas with The Guard and Calvary, both of which were suffused with a strong streak of black humour and quirky touches. So it was with high expectations that I went in to the cinema to see his latest effort, the blackly comic crime caper War On Everyone. What a massive disappointment his third feature as director turned out to be. Like Rod Stewart four decades earlier, McDonagh has made his own Atlantic crossing, hoping for bigger and better things with his first film in America. He has set his film in New Mexico, a bleak, arid setting far removed from the Irish locales of his first two films. The result is a messy, amoral, irreverent and confused sub Tarantino-like crime comedy about a couple of corrupt cops taking on drug dealers and other low life criminals in New Mexico. But it doesn’t quite succeed.
Terry Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard, recently seen in Tarzan, The Man From UNCLE, etc) and his partner Bob Bolano (Michael Pena, from The End Of Watch, etc) are a couple of tough maverick cops who have declared their own personal war on the scumbags of Albuquerque. They take bribes, blackmail informants and even frame petty crooks as they dispense their own form of rough justice, much to the chagrin of their long suffering and frustrated boss Lt Stanton (Mad About You‘s Paul Reiser). The pair are just one suspension away from being permanently kicked off the force. The pair the come up against he urbane Lord James Mangan (played by Theo James, best known for the popular dystopian Divergent series, etc), who is heavily involved in drug smuggling, pornography and the illegal sex trafficking trade.
Terry is an angry misfit, an alcoholic, racist, homophobic, misogynistic anti-hero whose philosophy for joining the police force was pretty simple and straight forward – “You can shoot people for no reason.” But he is also something of a complex character with a penchant for the music of Glen Campbell and saving lost souls – like the stripper Jackie Hollis (Tessa Thompson) and Danny Reynard (newcomer Zion Rain Leyba), a young boy being sexually abused by Mangan’s associates. Whereas Terry is a loner and has few commitments to worry about Bob is married and has two spoiled kids.
But they soon stumble upon a racetrack heist that ended in a bloodbath. The heist itself was planned by Mangan. Terry and Bob hope to track down the criminals and keep the $3 million for themselves. One of the people involved in the heist was their reluctant informant Reggie (Malcolm Barrett) who has made off with the proceeds. They track him down to a small village in Iceland, of all places, which offers a nice picturesque setting but serves as a meandering and pointless detour.
War On Everyone is a misanthropic film, filled with lots of gratuitous and unpleasant and nasty violence that seems heavily inspired by the odd couple buddy cop films from the 70s – films like Freebie And The Bean, Hickey And Boggs – and in particular the tv series Starsky And Hutch. And like Starsky’s red Gran Torino in the tv series, here Terry’s classic blue Monte Carlo coupe plays a big role in the film through car chases and a couple of action scenes.
Skarsgard and Pena develop a prickly chemistry as the hard drinking, fast talking cops who prefer to shoot first and skip the questions altogether. Their behaviour is amoral at times and their actions also quite cartoonish. Skarsgard, who replaced Garrett Hedlund who dropped out only three weeks before shooting began, shows some good comic timing and he brings an animal physicality to his character, particularly in the way he moves. But his character is nowhere near as affable or as likeable as Brendan Gleeson’s corrupt Irish cop in The Guard.
James’ villainous Mangan is unfortunately pretty much a one-dimensional psychopath. Caleb Landry Jones (Antiviral, etc) fares much better and he camps up his performance as the effete, psychopathic Birdwell, with his flowing locks and eye patch.  In a small role Reiser delivers a rather cliched one dimensional performance as the duo’s boss.
McDonagh certainly has a way with words and punchy dialogue, and there is plenty of profane and acerbic dialogue here. His screenplay seems to incorporate many familiar tropes from the best buddy cop films, from Midnight Run and Lethal Weapon through to the recent The Nice Guys. McDonagh gives the material the kind of anarchic energy that Guy Ritchie brought to his first couple of crime films.
The film has been slickly edited by McDonagh’s regular collaborator Chris Gill. Cinematographer Bobby Bukowski (Arlington Road, The Messenger, etc) bathes the film in the gritty aesthetic of tough 70s crime dramas, and he also captures the harsh landscapes of the New Mexico settings. And there is something about the way in which Bukowski also deliberately frames his characters within the confines of the screen that catches the eye.

The soundtrack itself features Glen Campbell, Roberta Flack and of course The Clash, whose cover of I Fought The Law brings the film to a fitting close.
Despite some well staged action and lacings of black humour, War On Everyone is a bit of a misfire and a wasted opportunity for McDonagh, especially given the quality of his first two films. A lot of the attempts at humour fall flat and there is a rather nasty undertone to the violence throughout the movie that leaves a bad aftertaste.

★★☆

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