War on Everyone opens with our two intrepid heroes chasing down a mime in their car. Bob (Michael Peña) wonders aloud if mimes make a sound when run over. Turns out, they make the same sound as anyone else when bouncing off a windshield. “Now you know,” drawls his partner Terry (Alexander Skarsgård). Then they pilfer a packet of cocaine from the mime’s pockets, which they later snort with an informant in a toilet.
It’s a fitting opening to the latest from John Michael McDonagh (brother of Martin McDonagh, of In Bruges fame). War on Everyone is a bad cop/bad cop buddy movie, a kind of more amoral Lethal Weapon. There are drugs, chases, and good old-fashioned police brutality. Everyone indulges in a little casual, equal opportunities racism.
After mowing down that mime, Bob and Terry – who inexplicably remain officers of the law for most of the film – get wind of a major robbery about to go down. Indulging in the bare minimum actual police work required, they track down petty criminals and occasional informants Reggie (Malcolm Barrett) and Pádraic (David Wilmot), who provide a scant few details. Meanwhile, we’re introduced to Lord James Mangan (Theo James), the British toff who is the mastermind behind whatever crime is imminent. Mangan is abetted by Caleb Landry Jones’ ambiguously effeminate Birdwell.
McDonagh’s previous films, the Tarantino-esque The Guard and the satirically religious Calvary, are dark, bleakly humorous affairs. With War on Everyone, McDonagh moves into broader territory, closer to the likes of Shane Black. The problem is, Bob and Terry’s outrageous behaviour too often gets in the way of the plot, which doesn’t really kick in until the third act, and then barely. To stick with Black for a moment, his Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and The Nice Guys demonstrate that it’s perfectly possible to intertwine your madcap character beats with a twisty noir-infused narrative. War on Everyone can’t quite manage this, instead feeling like a showcase for its protagonists’ illegal antics that eventually remembers that it has a plot.
McDonagh’s script isn’t quite up to the task, either. It isn’t as quick or slick as a Tarantino or a Black, nor are the scenarios outlandish or nuanced enough to really pop. Bob quotes philosophy and spouts fun pop culture facts (Joseph Conrad and Ernest Hemingway both tried to shoot themselves in the heart). Terry drinks heavily and has an unexplainable penchant for Glen Campbell. But these are just affectations, thrown in because McDonagh presumably thought they were fun.
The saving grace, or graces, are Bob and Terry themselves, and the actors who play them. There is a perverse enjoyment to be had watching what may be cinema’s most incorrigible cops ply their corrupt trade. The always delightful Peña has a feigned babyfaced naivety, while Skarsgård’s Terry is a laconic brute who hides a solid, if off kilter, moral centre.
Bob and Terry are certainly not Nice Guys, but Peña and Skarsgård imbue them with such depraved likeability that we can’t help but be swept along as they snort, extort, and shoot their way through the threadbare plot. Without these two, War on Everyone would flop to the ground like an injured mime. These characters, played by these actors, deserve a better film than McDonagh can give them.