War on Everyone
The bizarrely effective pairing of Peña and Skarsgård
Dark comedy overlaid on nuanced character
Meandering nature of the film occasionally feels like it would work better as a TV series
Mad, bad and frequently slipping into the surreal, John Michael McDonagh’s War on Everyone manages to wonderfully make use of the expectations of cop movies and then sidesteps cliche by just going completely bonkers. By putting together Michael Peña and Alexander Skarsgård, not exactly the likeliest of buddy duos, in a series of increasingly uber-violent and off the chain scenarios, McDonagh has somehow managed to create a film that transcends the boundaries of what it should be.
The film, in brief, revolves around the duo of corrupt-as-they-come cops being dragged into a case that steadily spirals beyond a simple robbery into something much darker. Along the way they get to run down a mime, punch a guy’s eye out and take a mini-holiday to Iceland. You know, standard police procedure. The police may be bad, well these two anyway, but the villains are worse and ultimately the narrative seems to be rest on the shoulders of our heroes’ motivating phrase, “let’s go fuck some scumbags”.
War on Everyone’s true brilliance lies in its mythologising. The America of McDonagh’s latest outing is pitch black satire, Starsky and Hutch blending with Breaking Bad to create a mad New Mexico, by way of Iceland, that sets our duo on a course to, as the title suggests, go to war with everyone and everything that stands in their way. Seen through writer/director McDonagh’s eyes, we walk through a world in which everything is just slightly out of kilter with normal, just a tad insane. It is a world that is wonderful to see thrown into chaos but, and here is the one detraction of the film, it is also a world that at times feels like it may benefit more from a Netflix mini-series than a full theatrical outing. With its surreal meanderings, War On Everyone is a film that manages to do the job in a 1 hour 40 runtime but has the feeling of something that could be gloriously stretched out over more time.
The real selling point, and what makes me want to see this world and the characters given more room to breathe and to languorously wreak havoc is the masterful pairing of Michael Peña and Alexander Skarsgård. Let me be clear, these two should not work together. Peña obviously has prior form with the comedy side of things, though not often this blackly cynical, and Skarsgård is a good fit for brooding masculinity but bringing them together seems improbable. More improbably is how well it works as they almost astoundingly naturally bond as Terry Monroe (Skarsgård) and Bob Bolaño (Peña), a duo that are dedicated to the aforementioned fucking of scumbags even as they engage in behaviours that most police officials wouldn’t exactly consider appropriate.
To avoid spoilers, I won’t go too much into the villains, save to say that they are darkly brilliant and though their roles aren’t exactly shockingly new, they are brought to life in opposition to our heroes in such a way as to lend a real nastiness to them. It’s this kind of character work, best exemplified by the slow unveiling of the depths of Skarsgård’s performance, beneath the comedy and violence that really sells War on Everyone and stops it just short of being overcome by the shortfalls of cliche. The film treads a thin line between originality and stock work, giving you just enough of what you know before slathering it in a helping of uber-violence and weirdness to bring it back to something brand new.
War on Everyone is entertainment at its rawest, shaking up action, comedy and sex into a violently filthy cocktail that’s just as likely to end up with you floating in the Blue Lagoon as running your car through a strip club wall. Brilliantly offensive, disturbingly violent and leading the way with heroes that only manage to be less twisted than the villains by virtue of taking out their issues on criminals alone, McDonagh’s latest work is a myth of an America that never was. In some way it’s more familiar than reality, twisted as it is through the various trappings of TV and film and all the trappings of the detective story that we know so well. Revel in the satire because it’s only in the world of cinema that being this bad can feel so good.
Featured image courtesy of IMP awards