Despite Great Performances, Lacks Iconic Moments
Noted Irish writer/director John Michael McDonagh, wordsmith behind The Guard and Calvary, continues his pattern of making the darkest of black comedy with the buddy cop film War on Everyone. Starring Alexander Skarsgård and Michael Peña, McDonagh’s War on Everyone takes the the black comedy corrupt cop genre to its ultimate zenith with two of the most despicable lawmen he could conjure up. As with each of his other films, War on Everyone screened out-of-competition at the Berlin International Film Festival in February of 2016 before being released in October of the same year in the UK, and early 2017 in the United States.
As most buddy cop films are, the plot of War on Everyone is more of a device to get to experience Skarsgård and Peña chewing up the proverbial scenery as reprehensibly as they can without losing the audience to their disrepute. McDonagh throws some truly nasty stuff in this one, whether Skarsgård’s Detective Monroe and Peña’s Detective Bolaño are beating a suspect so badly he loses an eye, making the most homophobic and racist comments they can think of, snorting mountains of cocaine that they’ve taken from evidence lock-up, or flying to Iceland to rip-off a criminal acquaintance and his gender-bending girlfriend. McDonagh packs his film with a plethora of gags worthy of a snicker or chuckle (or shocking gasp), but lacks enough great moments to elevate to the point of memorable. There isn’t anything that sets War on Everyone apart from the other films in the genre it shares company with. Notwithstanding, McDonagh makes a smart story decision avoiding the over-worn buddy cop story wrinkle of ‘will they/won’t they’ break-up or team-up one last time to get the ‘bad guy’. Detective Monroe and Bolaño are fiercely depraved and fiercely loyal; McDonagh doesn’t waste our time with that sort of predictable red herring.
That War on Everyone rings derivative of other black comedy buddy cop routines is not to say that leads Skarsgård and Peña aren’t right for their roles. Peña has really set himself apart in recent years with his particular brand of dry humor and comic timing. Peña’s Detective Bob Bolaño is part idiot-savant, part enabler/instigator for the boorish Detective Monroe. Sharp as a whip, and with an endless supply of useless information about topics that would make most cover their ears, Peña looks to be having a ball as he rips line after line of McDonagh’s densely packed dialogue. So thoroughly jammed full are his lines, that a second watch wouldn’t be out of the question to get each and every little side-crack that Peña throws in.
Opposite Peña, Skarsgård’s Detective Terry Monroe is no idiot-savant like his partner. Detective Monroe is an idiot-idiot, with a brash temper and mean streak that gets him into enough trouble that he has multiple civil lawsuits pending from battered former case suspects. Not known for his comedy, Skarsgård plays the depraved Monroe with the gusto of an actor who has found his calling. Up to this point in his career, Skarsgård might be best known as a wooden actor with appearances in clumsily written blockbusters (Battleship, The Legend of Tarzan); but in War on Everyone, he proves to have the cinematic charisma that’s been absent so far in his career.
As on-point as the leads are, the antagonists in War on Everyone is a story of mixed results. Caleb Landry Jones (Get Out) shows up for another off-kilter performance that is becoming his trademark. As the henchman ‘Birdwell’, inexplicably dressed as if he woke up in 1974, Jones brings an air of unpredictability to his role that is communicated as much in his words as in his body. Jones’ Birdwell is the right-hand man of primary villain Lord James Mangan, played by Theo James (Divergent). James fills his role with all the magnetism of a tree stump. This film is all about Skarsgård and Peña being the worst good-guys they can be; but James’ unengaged turn as Lord Mangan never provides the proper foil to Detective Monroe and Bolaño; and will have audiences abandoning the film’s third act, when comedy takes a backseat to action and plot resolution.
- Writing: 7/10 – Sharply written, but lacks big-time humor that could distinguish it.
- Acting: 6/10 – Skarsgård and Peña play together perfectly as they show a clear on-screen chemistry, but Theo James is less than forgettable as the primary antagonist.
6/10 – Great performances from Alexander Skarsgård and Michael Peña will keep audiences entertained throughout, but writer/director John Michael McDonagh’s razor-sharp pen misses out on the sort of indelible moments that would make War on Everyone a distinct or exceptional black comedy.