War on Everyone opens with a question.
“If you hit a mime,” Detective Bob Bolano (Michael Pena) asks, “does he make a sound?”
“Now, you know,” Detective Terry Malone (Alexander Skarsgard) replies, as he drives his car over a mime.
For the record, the Mime was a cocaine dealer so the detectives did have a reason for chasing him. Then again, the Mime was also on foot while the detectives were in a car. And the Mime was attempting to surrender when the detectives ran him over.
That scene pretty much sets the tone for the rest of War on Everyone, the latest film from Irish filmmaker John Michael McDonagh. McDonagh is best-known and rightfully acclaimed for his previous two films, The Guard and Calvary. Those two films were both darkly comedic and often violent meditations on life, death, morality, guilt, and redemption. While War on Everyone may not share either one of those films’ deeper concerns, it is definitely violent. And the comedy is definitely dark.
Bob and Terry are two of the most corrupt cops in the history of cinematic police corruption. Bob is a family man, who is full of useless trivia and usually seems to speaking a mile a minute. Terry is single and not quite as talkative. He views the world through permanently bloodshot eyes and always stands with an insolent slouch. Terry is the type who, when he drives down a city street, intentionally bumps into every parked car. When asked why he became a cop, Terry shrugs and replies that it was the only job available where he could shoot people without getting in trouble. When Bob and Terry confront an informant, they both get so caught up in snorting the informant’s cocaine that they forget what they wanted to ask about. Their lieutenant is constantly telling them to ease up on the corruption but, since he’s played by Paul Reiser, no one takes him seriously.
War on Everyone does have a plot but it’s debatable just how important it is. Bob and Terry learn about an up-coming heist. They decide to let the heist happen so that they can then bust the crooks and take the money for themselves. However, because there’s nothing that Bob and Terry can’t screw up, they not only fail to stop the heist but end up spending the rest of the movie trying to track down the money. Along the way, they bond with an orphan and Terry pursues a romance with a former stripper (Tessa Thompson, doing her best with an underwritten role).
The plot is really just an excuse for McDonagh to parody the conventions of the American cop film. Much like Seven Psychopaths (which was directed by John Michael McDonagh’s older brother, Martin), War on Everyone is a film about tangents. The point is to see how many weird directions the story can go in. This is the type of film where, at one point, Terry and Bob fly to Iceland just because.
(Don’t get me wrong. They have a reason for being in Iceland but still, you mostly come away with the feeling that McDonagh thought to himself, “What other New Mexico-set heist film features a trip to Iceland?”)
Particularly when compared to something like Calvary, War on Everyone doesn’t add up to much and yet that really is a part of the film’s charm. At a time when so many films are trying way too hard to be something more than what they actually are, War on Everyone is content to be a thoroughly over-the-top action comedy. It’s a bit like The Nice Guys, just with an even darker worldview.
What’s remarkable is how many critics have insisted in trying to find a deeper meaning where there clearly is none. I hardly ever do this but I have to point out that the A.V. Club review — headlined, undoubtedly by an intern hoping to impress the bosses with the power of snark, Sorry War On Everyone, but it’s not the best time for a comedy about giddily corrupt cops — is remarkable in just how thoroughly it misses the point of the film. If anything, it reads as if the reviewer couldn’t think of anything to say so he decided to engage in some preemptive political virtue signaling.
The review cited above makes the mistake of assuming that War on Everyone is supposed to be taking place in the real world. Everything — from the over-the-top violence to the mix of crude humor with philosophical asides to the mix of 70s music with modern technology — indicates that War on Everyone is meant to take place in a reality other than our own. It’s a dream-like world that was created by other cop movies and, ultimately, those other movies are the only thing that War on Everyone is attempting to critique. In much the style of early Tarantino, War On Everyone is a movie about movies.
(Unlike Tarantino’s last few films, War on Everyone only lasts 98 minutes, which would seem to indicate that McDonagh is superior to Tarantino in one important regard: he knows how and when to edit himself.)
War on Everyone is not for … well, everyone. It’s certainly not a masterpiece in the style of either The Guard or Calvary. It’s lesser McDonagh but, when taken on its own terms, it’s an enjoyable ramble of a movie that’s distinguished by the perfect casting of Skarsgard, Pena, and Reiser.
Just don’t take it too seriously.