John Michael McDonagh’s first film, The Guard, had Brendan Gleeson as a racist, drug-using, rule-ignoring Irish police officer who didn’t care about smaller crimes but would put forth some effort when it came to murder. McDonagh’s latest, War on Everyone, delivers two cops who are even looser cannons, completely corrupt, and not even terribly concerned when the crime is homicide. (Expect to see gifs of Michael Peña pounding the table with mock fury and declaring, “I hate murder!”)
Doubling down on this theme means moving the action to America, where crimes can be bigger, cops can be badder, and weapons can be more easily obtained. This may be an evolutionary step backward from “Calvary,” the thoughtful film McDonagh made between The Guard and this one, but if he’s not growing much, he’s sure having a great time staying where he is.
The setting is Albuquerque in the present day, but our detective protagonists, Terry Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard) and Bob Bolaño (Michael Peña), drive a ’70s car and are often accompanied by wakka-chikka-wakka music on the soundtrack – lest there be any confusion over which era of law enforcement they seek to emulate. Bob is married with kids and slightly less reckless than bachelor Terry, though it’s a narrow distinction. Bob comes across as educated and alert (if profane), debating philosophy with his wife (Stephanie Sigman), while Terry always sounds drunk and out-of-it (and also profane). Well-matched as friends and partners, Bob and Terry both do good impersonations of clueless idiots when dealing with their angry boss (Paul Reiser). They’re eagerly open to bribery and fond of excessive force.
Following the usual formula, our cops investigate a small thing (an escaped inmate) that leads them into a larger, more sinister plot. An informant, Reggie (Malcolm Barrett), is black and Muslim, opening the door for numerous inappropriate jokes, mostly from Terry. There’s also a fey, oily bar owner (Caleb Landry Jones) and a posh English kingpin (Theo James). Horse racing is involved somehow. Terry, who has a weird Glen Campbell fixation, hooks up with a suspect’s girlfriend (Tessa Thompson), with whom he does a choreographed dance to “Rhinestone Cowboy” before making love.
The story isn’t much, and like The Guard, it eventually gets bogged down in its details. McDonagh is better at dialogue than plot – but he’s SO GOOD at dialogue, firing off one scathing joke after another, filling each scene with smart, snappy banter, that it hardly matters. Or he’ll pivot and have the characters get philosophical, contemplating death and mortality for a while before switching back to overt comic offensiveness.
Much of the humor is “un-P.C.,” as they say – racist, vulgar, mean to fat kids, etc. Terry and Bob are deliberately rude, their nihilism manifesting itself as giddy misanthropy. They say and do terrible things, like adult versions of a teenage rebel who only does what he knows he’s not supposed to do. I often laughed and winced at the same time. Yet despite the intentional line-crossing, it never feels like McDonagh is doing it just for shock value. This has been consistent across all his work. He’s a good enough wordsmith that if he includes a racist comment, it’s going to be a really clever racist comment, dammit! (Your mileage may vary, of course.)
Peña and Skarsgard make a better comedy team than I think anyone would have suspected when the Hollywood gods randomly drew their names from a hat and said, “OK, you be in a movie together.” Peña’s almost manic cheerfulness makes Bob impossibly likable, and is balanced by Skarsgard’s more subdued but equally lovable Terry. They’re clearly having fun, and it’s contagious.