'War on Everyone' is a weirdly philosophical post-Tarantino crime comedy
The latest from John Michael McDonagh ("The Guard," "Calvary") pals around with two absurdly corrupt cops (Alexander Skarsgard and Michael Pena).
‘War on Everyone’
Director: John Michael McDonagh
Stars: Alexander Skarsgard, Michael Pena
3 (out of 5) Globes
“War on Everyone” is a bad cops comedy with a difference. That difference is not what you’d expect. Our anti-heroes — cheerfully slimy detectives Terry (Alexander Skarsgard) and Bob (Michael Pena) — don’t have a third act about-face. Their wild antics go miles above the law, but that’s not why it’s special. What’s unique is its voice. It’s the latest from John Michael McDonagh (“The Guard,” “Cavalry”), and you can tell: It betrays his gift for wordplay, his yen for nasty hairpin turns (if not as grisly as the plays and films by his brother, Martin, of "In Bruges"), his way of doodling with philosophy in a way that’s half a joke, half sincere. It might even be profound, but only at the end, and only in the most furtive, least pretentious way possible.
It would be easy to mistake McDonagh’s film for a parody, though it’s certainly self-aware. It seems to know you’ll probably only semi-pay attention to the twisty but stock plot, in which Terry and Bob try to take down a crooked businessman (Theo James). The herky-jerk, fast-cutting opening plays like the video for The Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage,” only for lawmen who spend the film framing suspects, boozing on the clock and unblinkingly tossing off racial epithets. If that sounds like standard corrupt pig business, then sometimes they drive their car into strip joints or spend shoot-outs hiding behind innocent bystanders.
This is all played for comedy, with nary a sincere moment. When McDonagh turns the camera upside down during a car chase for no reason, you can tell it’s sarcastic, and ditto a part where the action takes a hilariously out-of-nowhere sojourn to Iceland (to the strains of Lee Hazlewood’s “Cowboy in Sweden,” natch). Meanwhile, an effeminate, feather-bowed henchman (Caleb Landry Jones) — a callback to the swishy gay killers in ’70s movies like Clint Eastwood’s “The Eiger Sanction” — is perhaps more than a mere thumb-in-the-eye to the PC police.
But “War on Everyone” is neither only a parody nor only a joke. It’s after something far weirder. Peppered throughout are philosophical nuggets. Usually these are jokes, too. Bob debates Simone de Beauvoir with his wife (Stephanie Sigman) and, during the action climax, busts out the old “prove this chair does not exist” story. (He also sings the praises of Steven Soderbergh.) McDonagh has a skill for dialogue that combines the high and the low, as when Terry’s suspect-turned-sex friend Jackie (Tessa Thompson) — who’s turned on by this macho psycho but is also seen reading classics of African-American and feminist lit — remarks of an old flame, “He wrote a well-regarded monograph on Andre Breton. He also had a nice dick.” (McDonagh is also a pro at spinning familiar catchphrases to surprising ends: “Wait till you see the other guy: He’s totally unscathed.”)
These moments of deeper reflection (or mere name-dropping) don’t add up to a cohesive philosophical treatise, but they do add up to something. “War on Everyone”'s throws enough of these at the wall that a different argument — and one that would be amoral if the movie meant it — gradually emerges. Despite their occasional high talk, Terry and Bob are always dumb sadists, especially Terry, a towering Adonis with a yen for Glen Campbell, who occasionally seems to half-struggle with his powerful vapidity before forgetting what he was worrying about. They don’t see any reason to become better people, and the world never gives them one. They live in the now, cruising through the unexamined life, destroying lives and killing perps along the way. As it ends, “War on Everyone” even seems suspiciously Buddhist. If it is, that’s a troubling thought — though, come to think of it, that’s kind of funny, too, in its sick way.