John Michael McDonagh abandon’s Ireland for New Mexico in a conventional cop-comedy, 'War On Everyone', with added quirk, which fails to hit the comedic mark of his previous features.
Terry (Alexander Skarsgård) and Bob (Michael Peña) are bad cops in every sense of the word. They spend their days hurtling around the streets of New Mexico in their heavily-dented car, taking bribes, drinking, extorting perps and taking cocaine with their informants. They will do anything if it gets them cash. Then they cross the wrong man, an English (crime) lord (Theo James), who decides that these two bent cops need teaching a lesson.
Following on from the superb black comedy ‘Calvary’ that played in Berlin in 2014, Irish director John Michael McDonagh is back in the German capital with his first American outing, ‘War On Everyone’ (2016).
Starring Michael Peña and Alexander Skarsgård, the film is a tonally conflicted cop-comedy. It misses the mark that McDonagh so expertly hit with his previous work, but is saved from disaster by the presence of Michael Peńa, who appears to be the only member of the cast that gets the joke.
The central problem with ‘War On Everyone’ is that the humour which worked so well in his two previous features has failed to translate when being communicated to primarily American audiences – a problem that his brother Martin McDonagh also experienced with the critically panned ‘Seven Psychopaths’ (2012) which followed on from his European cult-hit In Bruges.
The acerbic, dry wit that Brendon Gleeson provided as both Sergeant Gerry Boyle and Father James worked well in an Irish context. It possessed a world-weary warmth, even when the script had to navigate heavy plot points concerning paedophilia. It was comedy used at its most powerful, where the pathos of the (often hilarious) script would pointedly cut to the quick of weighty issues.
Michael Peńa manages to bring something of this to ‘War On Everyone’, especially in the scenes opposite his on-screen wife Dolores played by Stephanie Sigman, but just not at the same level.
Skarsgård’s part is more problematic. His nihilistic behaviour, which is explained by a later plot point, makes him difficult to empathise with, and the overall effect is that we care little about the outcome of his character.
The story becomes thinner, hurtling towards a conventional conclusion. The wild antics of the central characters, cops Terry and Bob, and their initially amusing devil-may-care attitude, ends up leaving a sour taste in the mouth with little point or purpose.
Equally problematic is the quirkiness of the other characters who, as with the two leads, alienate the audience. We have the strangely squeaky Caleb Landry Jones as a strip club owner with a penchant for 60s neck-scarfs. Tessa Thompson as a former stripper who likes to quote the existentialist philosophies of Simone de Beauvoir. And lastly, there is Skarsgård’s bad cop Terry who has an obsessive love for the music of Glen Campbell and cowboy fashion. This quirkiness echoes Tarantino’s sense of humour and the stylisation of the ‘Kill Bill’ films (2003,2004). But here the otherness feels put on for its own sake rather than any narrative purpose, other than to stress the overall attitude that life is little more than a bleak, painful, inescapable mess.
The narrative dexterity that McDonagh showed in previous films is also absent, and the plot falls prey to the tropes of a cop comedy rather than parodying them. This includes a lacklustre antagonist in the form of Theo Jones’ silver-spooned Lord who organises bank robberies and creates porn in his spare time.
War On Everyone is a disappointing addition to John Michael McDonagh’s work. Though far from a complete disaster (thanks to Michael Peña, who manages to bring a level of warmth to the story) it is not enough to make it more than a middling cop-comedy, overburdened with stylisation and needing more purpose.