'War on Everyone'
In ‘The Guard‘, writer/director John Michael McDonagh made an adorably Irish twist on the bad cop genre. That film did rather well, so now he’s been allowed to cross the ocean and serve up more of the same with a bigger budget and American accents.
‘War on Everyone’ feels like a throwback to the cartoonish shock comedy of 1970s buddy cop movies such as ‘Freebie and the Bean’, which established an action genre that would become far cuddlier by the ’80s. McDonagh fills his screenplay with juicy one-liners and then blows stuff up every 15-20 minutes to add to the entertainment value. It’s a good time, but McDonagh’s voice feels sadly stifled by his desire to reach a wider audience in North America. ‘The Guard’ may have been pure dirty fun, but something about the local specificity made it feel like a somewhat unique entry in an overcrowded genre. ‘War on Everyone’ is more generic. While still fun, it’s ultimately more forgettable.
The movie opens with cops Bob Bolaño and Terry Monroe (Michael Peña and Alexander Skarsgård) chasing down a mime in their car and wondering if he’ll make a noise if they hit him. So they do. That’s the sort of movie you’re in for, folks. They get reprimanded by their captain (Paul Reiser), but you know that won’t stop their irrepressible behavior. Soon enough, they’re back at it and following a trail that starts with theft and ends with a child prostitution ring, all in the name of bringing down a crime lord played by Theo James.
Of course, the plots in these sorts of movies are pretty inconsequential. It’s mostly just an excuse for McDonagh to give his bad cops a chance to blackmail suspects, take drugs, trade insults and eventually revel in the adolescent fun of the casual violence in their job. It’s pretty fun for a while, then the joke runs stale.
It certainly doesn’t help that McDonagh’s stab at this genre comes less than a year after Shane Black’s delightfully cracked buddy cop revival ‘The Nice Guys’. Black’s skill with mixing snappy dialogue and unexpected gearshift violence has been carefully honed after decades of inventing and re-inventing these genre tropes. McDonagh, on the other hand, is still fairly new at this game and doesn’t quite have the same strengths. His dialogue sparkles, but never quite takes off like it has in the past. He’s never been great at plotting, so that aspect is shoved to the background. And while McDonagh is getting better at staging action, he can’t quite make his meagre budget match the set-pieces of his Hollywood equivalents. ‘War on Everyone’ is very much a B-movie even though it’s a self-conscious one. This is the K-Mart knockoff of ‘The Nice Guys’, not the real thing.
It’s still a good time, though. Like his brother Martin (‘In Bruges’, ‘Seven Psychopaths’), John Michael McDonagh has a knack for stringing swear words together in a way that’s both poetically profane and hilarious. Actors love to spit this stuff out, and the film boasts some fun performances. In particular, Michael Peña is one of the most consistently entertaining presences on America screens these days. (He somehow stole ‘Ant-Man’ away from everyone in a comparatively minor role.) He delivers his dialogue with deadpan comedic glee and provides a depth to his characterization that wasn’t on the page. Unfortunately, Alexander Skarsgård isn’t nearly as funny or grounded, so this partnership is one-sided.
That at least lets supporting players like Tessa Thompson, Caleb Landry Jones, and even Paul Reiser (yes, really) steal some scenes. A palpable sense that everyone had fun while making this movie and translates through the screen, even if they may have been having a little too much fun performing their salty dialogue and forgot about the story and action that should have been equal selling points.
Make no mistake, ‘War on Everyone’ will be a fun time for those who like watching cops behave badly while doing some light action. McDonagh is clearly a fan of this genre and is having a good time. However, his ‘The Guard’ had more passion behind it than mere homage and ‘Calvary‘ came from an even more wounded and personal place. Held up next to his first two features, ‘War on Everyone’ feels minor and indistinct despite the bigger budget and additional boom-boom.
Maybe the project got watered down by producers or maybe McDonagh merely cranked this out in an attempt to court a wider audience and didn’t put his heart into it. Either way, ‘War on Everyone’ almost could have been made by anyone. That wasn’t true of McDonagh’s other movies and hopefully it won’t be true of his next. This is an amusing lark, just not something that many will ever revisit, even the folks who worked on the movie.