‘Hard-living cops get into shenanigans with crazy crime-lord and have to shoot their way out’ was already old hat when Lethal Weapon cracked the code on how to perfect the buddy cop formula, and the tidal wave of copycats that followed in that film’s footsteps ensured that there is very little new to be done with this particular set-up. No, in this day and age, the success or failure of this kind of film is going to depend less on the narrative beats and more on if the particular telling has the voice and energy to differentiate it from the pack.
Does War on Everyone, now available on home media, succeed on this front? I tell ya, when I mentioned on Twitter that I was going to be watching it, a whole bunch of people angrily tweeted at me not to waste my time. A whole bunch of different people hit me up to tell me not to listen to the first bunch of people, that War was an irreverent blast.
While I can see both viewpoints, I came down in the latter category. War on Everyone has its weak spots, and it is definitively not for everyone, but it makes the most out of a game cast and a jet-black strain of humor.
Bob (Michael Pena) and Terry (Alexander Skarsgard) are perhaps the most corrupt police officers in movie history. They’ll rob anyone, smoke and snort anything, and if anybody gives them any problems, well, they have badges and brute force and are happy to use both. As War gets going, the duo stumble over a potential heist that could be worth millions, so the name of the game is to track the robbery and then scoop up the cash once it’s out there.
If you’ve ever seen a movie before, you know it’s never as simple as that. War on Everyone’s plot winds its way to include a lordly up-and-coming crime boss (Theo James), his right hand man (Caleb Landry Jones), a couple of low level stooges (David Wilmont and Malcolm Barrett), and a potential accessory to various wrongdoings, Jackie (Tessa Thompson).
War on Everyone was written and directed by John Michael McDonagh (brother to Martin In Bruges McDonagh, and himself the writer and director of The Guard and Calvary, which I have not seen [I know, I know]) and the cast, to a person, attacks his words with great gusto. All Pena and Skarsgard have to do is stand next to each other to score laughs, but they also bounce off each other quite nicely. Of the two, Pena’s is the defter turn, quietly finding the reserves of decency and character in the ocean of shit that is Bob. Skarsgard plays Terry a little more internal, and he’s trying out an accent that never totally lands (and often led to me wondering if I should put the subtitles on), but he plays well off the rest of the cast and is much more lively and playful than roles like Tarzan normally allow for. Whatever its other faults and successes, War on Everyone succeeds in having a buddy cop duo that are fun to spend time with, and that’s half the battle right there.
No one is having more fun than the villains, though, with James and Jones grabbing every scene that isn’t nailed down. I only really know James through the Divergent movies, where his role mostly consists of furrowing his brow and taking his shirt off at opportune moments. Not the best showcase for acting chops, you know? Here, he gets to use his actual accent and dig into some really choice bits of nastiness and James more than delivers.
And Jones…look, I will be honest with you guys, I don’t know what the fuck Caleb Landry Jones is doing. I also didn’t know what the fuck he was doing in Get Out, but he ended up being weirdly perfect for the role. Jones is capital-A ACTING in every shot of the movie, even in scenes where he just stands in the background and doesn’t speak. It’s in the way he carries himself, the way he poses, all these weird little choices that add up to maybe the strangest villain turn since Eddie Redmayne’s whisperSCREAMwhisper masterpiece in Jupiter Ascending (Jones is next going to be in Martin’s amazing looking Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, so whatever it is that he’s doing, the McDonagh brothers are tuned in).
Thompson gets less to do, but McDonagh’s script finds ways to nicely subvert the token wife/girlfriend role for her and Stephanie Sigman as Bob’s wife Delores. In general, McDonagh finds odd strokes of character for everyone, even characters who only pop in a scene or two. Hell, Paul Reiser gets some of the film’s biggest laughs in his quick turn as Bob and Terry’s beleaguered captain.
War on Everyone has some major laughs scattered throughout its runtime, with a steady stream of low-key humor churning for the duration. The laughs are sometimes rude, frequently crude, and often come from just how flat-out wrong the behavior on screen is, but all of it is founded in the bantering interplay between Skarsgard and Pena.
But for all the glee the film takes in being nasty, there’s a vein of genuine righteousness running through War on Everyone. Terry and Bob are terrible, terrible people, but their investigation goes to places beyond the pale even for them, and much of the film’s final act deals with both men coming to a dawning awareness that they actually give a shit about something for once and can’t just walk away. The Nice Guys hit much of these same beats more strongly last year, but McDonagh’s punch may land a little harder given how convincing a portrait of moral rot the film’s early goings are.
So, will you be in the half of the audience that rejects War on Everyone completely, or will you find it delightful all the way through? Buddy, I honestly can’t say, but I laughed pretty much the whole time and ended up even feeling weirdly moved by how it all wraps up. Your mileage can, and almost certainly will, vary.