Film Review: ‘War on Everyone’

John Michael McDonagh delivers an American cop movie through Irish eyes, satirizing what passes for the law in the United States.

The War on Everyone Movie Review
Courtesy of Berlin Film Festival

Everything “War on Everyone” writer-director John Michael McDonagh knows about United States law enforcement he must have learned watching ’70s cop shows, while the rest of his outlook on the American way of life may as well have been cribbed from vintage photographs and Glen Campbell records. Not a bad mix of influences for the wicked-dark Irish satirist to recombine for his virgin foray abroad, a talky, sexy, irreverent and ultimately somewhat surreal buddy-cop movie in which two detectives one suspension shy of early retirement stick their noses into the middle of a million-dollar heist, hoping to bust the criminals and keep the loot for themselves. While his American competition practices the right to remain silent, McDonagh writes his clever, coal-black heart out, delivering another firecracker script, whose explosively entertaining execution boasts considerably more commercial potential than his previous two indies, “Calvary” and “The Guard.”

On the good-cop/bad-cop continuum, Albuquerque police detectives Bob Bolano (Michael Pena) and Terry Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard) are something of a paradox: What makes them effective is the fact that they don’t care. Bob has a gorgeous wife and two spoiled kids at home, but doesn’t think twice of risking such domestic bliss to shake down local scumbags — like the cocaine-dealing mime they run down in the opening car chase (hardly a fair match, considering the face-painted perp is on foot and the cops are behind the wheel of a classic blue Monte Carlo coupe). Making a lone exception for his Mexican partner, Terry otherwise hates everybody: He’s racist, misogynist and quite possibly nihilist to boot, explaining that he joined the force because “you can shoot people for no reason.”

While recent American headlines reveal that quip to be too often true, neither Bob nor Terry has ever killed a man. By the bloody end, “War on Everyone” will change all that, despite the stern talking-to the two partners receive on the subject of excessive force from their patience-strained police chief (Paul Reiser, in what turns out to be a decent, if unexpected, bit of casting for the former “Mad About You” star). Flagrantly disrespectful in the face of authority, Bob and Terry have reason to believe a handful of shady characters are gathering in town to organize a caper, and rather than inform their chief, they set out to crack the scheme, let the crime happen and then steal the dough — though they’re dim enough to stake out a downtown mosque when the actual heist happens, leaving three dead (by unprovoked police fire) and the money at large.

But long before things go bad, their plan puts Bob and Terry in direct contact with exactly the kind of lowlifes they make it their duty to keep off the streets, whether that means snorting cocaine with a Muslim-converted, ex-con informant (Malcolm Barrett) or depriving a crooked goon (Geoffrey Pomeroy) of his cash, his flatscreen TV and his politically savvy, ex-stripper girlfriend (Tessa Thompson). Regardless of the task at hand, the pair make it clear that they don’t take the job all that seriously, unless they immediately stand to benefit — as they do when jetting off to pursue their “Willie Dynamite”-styled snitch all the way to Iceland (about as radical a change of scenery from New Mexico as one could find).

Showing up at a murder scene with cheeseburgers in their hands, Bob and Terry might as well have stepped out of a Quentin Tarantino movie or an Elmore Leonard novel — and though McDonagh shares some of the “Jackie Brown” director’s pop-culture-quoting habits, as Leonard adaptations go, it would seem he’s partial to Steven Soderbergh’s “Out of Sight” (seen playing on the aforementioned flatscreen). Like Tarantino, McDonagh is a creative magpie, stealing juicy nuggets from any and everywhere, although he has considerably better taste — or, at the very least, proves to be far better read.

Ergo, in addition to such retro touches as horizontal wipes and a funk-music score (which composer Lorne Balfe manages to squeeze in between Glen Campbell ballads), you can expect McDonagh’s cheeky pastiche to include references to American history, Greek mythology and fun facts about famous suicides. What it doesn’t contain much of is simple, sensitive humanity, instead treating mortality like a joke and serious substance abuse like just another quirky costume flourish (despite his studly Swedish physique, Skarsgard slouches through most of the movie half-soused). If there’s one thing that connects the protagonists in McDonagh’s three features to date, beyond their brazenly non-PC sensibilities, it’s a certain Zen-like ambivalence about whether they live or die.

After “The Guard” and “Calvary,” McDonagh hinted that his next film would close out what he called his “glorified suicide trilogy,” and though that project is presumably still in the pipeline, the “War on Everyone” duo may as well share that same self-destructive spirit. As cops, they make the rules, and even when stripped of their badges, they’re not about to suddenly start following somebody else’s orders. As the investigation proceeds, they destroy a strip club, punch someone’s eye out and uncover a child pornography ring, ratcheting up the stakes until the only thing left to do is walk in, confront big boss James Mangan (a spoiled British lord played by Theo James, looking both dandier and more butch than James Franco) and his prissy right-hand stooge, Birdwell (Caleb Landry Jones, playing a more effeminate version of “Dirty Harry’s” Scorpio killer), in a good old-fashioned Mexican standoff.

Compared with some of the fancy action that has come before — heightened by stalwart editing partner (and former Danny Boyle collaborator) Chris Gill — the climactic shootout actually feels rather tame (probably not the word any of the victims would choose, especially the one Terry nails with one of his famous crotch shots). As with the racetrack heist itself, McDonagh opts not to dwell on the spectacle of bloodletting, but is clear to illustrate its aftermath. As such, “War on Everyone” makes a peculiar sort of statement, riffing on such violent genres as Westerns and cop movies, even as it questions why the country puts guns (and badges) into the hands of angry misfits. As Reiser quips at one point, “This is the police department. We’re surrounded by big fat racist pigs.” If Tarantino had said it, the police unions would have had even more reason to boycott his movie. Coming from across the Pond, the indictment feels doubly damning.

Film Review: ‘War on Everyone’

Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Panorama), Feb. 12, 2016. Running time: <strong>98 MIN.</strong>

  • Production: (U.K.) A Reprisal Films, Head Gear Films, Kreo Films FZ, Metrol Technology production, in association with Bankside Films, BFI. (International sales: Bankside Films, London.) Produced by Chris Clark, Flora Fernandez Marengo, Phil Hunt, Compton Ross. Executive producers, Fenella Ross, Elliot Ross. Co-producer, Elizabeth Eves.
  • Crew: Directed, written by John Michael McDonagh. Camera (color), Bobby Bukowski; editor, Chris Gill; music, Lorne Balfe; music supervisor, Liz Gallacher; production designer, Wynn Thomas; art director, Billy W. Ray; set decorator, Edward McLoughlin; costume designer, Terry Anderson; sound, Bil Clement; sound designer, Phil Lee; supervising sound editor, Ian Wilson; special effects supervisor, David Greene; visual effects supervisor, Mark Wellband; visual effects producer, Fatemeh Khoshkhou; stunt coordinator, Josh Kemble; associate producer, Tom Harbend; assistant director, Dennis Crow; casting, Sarah Finn.
  • With: Alexander Skarsgard, Michael Pena, Caleb Landry Jones, Malcolm Barrett, Tessa Thompson, Theo James, David Wilmot, Stephanie Sigman, Paul Reiser, Geoffrey Pomeroy.