Film Review: War on Everyone (dir by John Michael McDonagh)


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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.

 

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #122: Calvary (dir by John Michael McDonagh)


Calvary_movieposterCalvary was probably the best movie of 2014 that you did not see in a theater.  I missed seeing it during its brief theatrical run in the States.  If I had seen it when it was originally released, my list of the best films of 2014 would have been far different.  Calvary is an amazing film that takes a serious and intelligent look at issues of faith, morality, guilt, and absolution.  It is one of the best films about Catholicism that I’ve ever seen.

The film, which was written and directed by John Michael McDonagh (who previously gave us The Guard), tells the story of an Irish priest, Father James (Brendan Gleeson).  During confession, an unseen parishoner tells James about the horrific sexual abuse that he suffered as a child.  The parishoner explains that the priest who abused him has since died so the parishoner plans to get his revenge on the Catholic Church by killing James.  He tells James to meet him on the beach next Sunday.  He also informs James that his death will mean more because James is a “good man.”

The rest of the film follows James over the course of what could be the last week of his life and we watch as James struggles to fulfill his priestly duties in a world that seems to be moving further and further away from the Church.  While everyone seems to come to him with their problems and their questions, few people seem to share James’s faith and James is often left to wonder whether he’s doing any good at all.

For instance, when he confronts the local butcher (Chris O’Dowd) for beating his wife, the butcher refuses to admit that he did anything wrong.  When he goes to prison and talks to a serial killer (Freddie Joyce) who wants forgiveness, James replies that he can’t be forgiven because he feels no guilt.  The local millionaire (Dylan Moran) offers to donate money to the church but also confesses that he made his money through illegal means.  A local doctor, a hedonistic, cocaine-snorting atheist played by Aiden Gillen, takes perverse pleasure in taunting James for caring about death.  When James attempts to talk to a local girl, the girl’s father accuses him of being a pedophile.  When the local church catches on fire, nobody in the village seems to care.  And finally, one night, James returns home to discover that someone has murdered his beloved dog.

And yet, there are good moments as well.  James prays with a woman (Marie-Josee Croze) who has just lost her husband.  James gets chance to bond with his emotionally unstable daughter, Fiona (Kelly Reilly).  James successfully counsels a troubled young man (Killian Scott) and befriends an American writer (M. Emmett Walsh).

And, as Sunday approaches, James is forced to decide whether to leave his parish or to go to the beach.

Calvary is a great film, one that consistently takes you by surprise and forces you to think.  In many ways, James serves as a stand-in for the entire Catholic Church.  He’s made mistakes, he’s been battered, and he struggles with doubt.  And yet, at the same time, he is still capable of doing so much good.  Calvary is one of the best Catholic films ever made.

And it also features Brendan Gleeson’s best performance to date.  That is truly saying something because Brendan Gleeson is one of our greatest actors.  Gleeson is onscreen for every minute of Calvary and his emotional and, at times, warmly humorous performance is an amazing thing to behold.  When we first see James, he’s a weary and burned-out man.  Over the course of the week (and the film), he goes from being frightened to angry to sad to eventually achieving a state of grace.

It’s a great performance in a great film.

You may have missed Calvary in 2014.

Don’t miss it again.

A Quickie With Lisa Marie: The Guard (directed by John Michael McDonagh)


Have you seen The Guard yet?  If you haven’t, you need to.  This deceptively simple (and violent) Irish film is one of the best films of the year so far.  It’s also one of my personal favorites.

Boyle (played by the great Brendan Gleeson) is a casually corrupt but well-meaning Irish policeman who appears to have settled into a life of quiet complacency.  He spends his time caring for his aging mother, bragging (and perhaps lying) about his past career as a competitive swimmer, entertaining prostitutes, and taking the occasional acid trip.  As there’s little real crime taking place in the small coastal village that he calls home, Boyle is free to spend his workday playing video games and ignoring his far more serious partner, a rookie named McBride (played by Rory Keenan).  McBride is married to a mail order bride and, beneath his straight-laced exterior, has a secret of his own.  Things start to pick up for Boyle and McBride when an unidentified man is brutally murdered in a manner that suggests he fell victim to Satanists.  Meanwhile, cocky FBI agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle) is in the village, searching for three viscous drug smugglers (played by Liam Cunningham, Mark Strong, and David Wilmot).  Despite Wendell’s condescending attitude and Boyle’s own casual racism, the two of them soon discover that their two cases are connected and that there’s more to Boyle than originally meets the eyes…

In almost every way, The Guard is a triumph.  Director John Michael McDonagh (whose brother Martin directed Gleeson in In Bruges)  finds a perfect balance between comedy and tension and manages to maintain it throughout the entire film.  McDonagh has a wonderful eye for detail and the entire film is full of memorable characters who are quirky without ever being silly.  Though the villains (and their ultimate evil scheme) will be familiar to anyone who has ever seen an action film, Cunningham, Strong, and Wilmot are all believably ruthless and intimidating.  Don Cheadle is perfectly cast as the straight-laced Wendell and the film has a lot of fun with his “fish-out-of-water” attempts to bring American justice to the Irish coast. 

However, ultimately, this film is all about Brendan Gleeson.  For decades, Gleeson has been one of the most dependable character actors in the movies.  Whether he was playing a villain or a hero and regardless of the size of his role, Gleeson has always made an impression and he’s always left filmgoers like me wanting to see more of him.  Well, in The Guard, Gleeson gets to show us exactly what he can do and the result is one of the best performances of the year.  Whether he’s greeting a prostitute in an immaculate three-piece suit or having a secret meeting with the local representative of the IRA, Gleeson dominates the entire film and, most importantly, keeps us guessing about just who Boyle is.  Gleeson triumphs in The Guard and the end result is one of the best films of 2011.