John Michael McDonagh’s latest War on Everyone is a radical departure from his previous thoughtful and soulful productions, such as The Guard and Calvary.
War on Everyone is a big, brash buddy cop film which tries hard to make a virtue of its head-on confrontation with almost every cliché of the genre, but for all its self-conscious intellectualism the barrage of sound and fury ultimately ends up signifying little but the whims of a director who’s got his hands on a big Hollywood budget and doesn’t quite know where to point it.
Our bad cop/bad cop combo is comprised of Alexander Skarsgård as Terry Monroe and Michael Peña as Bob Bolaño, two dirty detectives who tear around Albuquerque in a sky blue Monte Carlo coupé running down mimes and generally raising hell in their upholding of the law. They make a good bit on the side extorting and blackmailing small-time crooks around town until the British Lord James Mangan (Theo James) shows up and gives them a run (and jump and shoot) for their money.
Skarsgård plays Monroe as a hulking beast of a man, all hunched shoulders and Neanderthal brow, drowning his sorrows with scotch and Glen Campbell. He’s a psychopath and a nihilist, until his deep-buried heart of gold is touched by the plight of an innocent.
It’s one of a variety of moments when War on Everyone, despite its proclaimed craziness with a capital K and dollops of irony, drags itself back to convention like an elastic band snapping against the tender hopes of the viewer. Peña’s Bolaño, by contrast, is a family man. He carries on the rich Hollywood tradition of average-looking men with vast intellectual pretensions engaging in relationships with women who indulge their every whim while looking like, well, Hollywood actresses (see also: every Woody Allen film).
There’s also a varyingly interesting supporting cast of characters, from Caleb Landry Jones’ giggling sociopath Birdwell to the languid sex object/reluctant mother figure Jackie Hollis (Tessa Thompson). The film does feel comfortably populated; as he showed in the fairly sublime Calvary, McDonagh is skilled at filling his narratives with full and believable figures, creating a great deal of character out of relatively little.
The problem is that no one seems quite sure what that narrative is. I mean that not only in the sense of plot, although that is confused and by the end perfunctory. War on Everyone wears its influences very much on its sleeve, being most clearly indebted to Tarantino as well as to the usual suspects of self-aware pulp crime like Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen.
War on Everyone clearly wants to be a clever send-up of the whole genre – the problem is just that it isn’t really clever enough, or perhaps clever in the wrong way. It throws out philosophy quotes and, mainly through Peña, cultivates an air of amused detachment, which is regularly undermined when we’re suddenly asked to care about characters who have previously given us no real reason to do so.
It wants to be too many things. It wants to be witty and glib and is filled with slightly overwritten one-liners (of which perhaps 30% land), but it also wants to be deep and thoughtful. It wants to be violent and unrelenting, but it also wants that 15 rating; the difference between Skarsgård’s “are you gonna rape me?” to a bunch of thugs and Pulp Fiction’s basement gimp scene is the difference between directorial bravado and bravery.
War on Everyone is at its best when it just shuts up and takes a breath. Just as he has a talent for deftly sketching out characters with a few well-placed strokes, so too is McDonagh something of a master of the almost-empty shot. Skarsgård solo waltzing around his spotless minimalist apartment; Peña’s head hanging out the car window, iridescently framed against the New Mexico night sky. There are cracks where a better, less frantic film shines through, but War on Everyone is just too in love with the sound of its own voice to give itself the space it needs to succeed. 2/5