The following review was originally published as part of our coverage of the 2016 South by Southwest Film Festival.
“Back the Blue.” “Support Your Local Police.” These sayings are thrown around a lot lately. They’re meant to remind us that the boys in blue are still here to serve and protect. They tell us, whatever we may read on The Huffington Post or see on MSNBC, that these men and women in uniform truly have our best intentions at heart. That is, unless they happen to be Terry (Alexander Skarsgård) and Bob (Michael Peña), the dirty buddy cop duo in John Michael McDonagh’s entertaining yet uneven War on Everyone.
McDonagh has made a career out of penning offensive, anti-authority figures of authority. Brendan Gleeson played the part in the hilarious The Guard and the intense Calvary. Now, Peña and Skarsgård are here to give us their very best anti-heroes. Peña, as always, is a pleasure to watch. The cadence of his quick-fire delivery demands attention and his warm, mischievous smile is immediately ingratiating. And Skarsgård plays a wonderful straight man to Pena’s fast-talking, philosophical funny man. The tall, imposing Swede presents an oafish figure with slouched shoulders. It always appears as though he’s protecting himself and, as the film soon reveals, for good reason.
The two play off each other well, and their rapport is the real highlight of the film. For the entire first act, we’re invited to witness the two cops at their most disgraceful. We see them run over a drug-dealing mime. They try to drown a jockey who squawks when he soaks his toupee. They do cocaine off a bathroom baby-changing station. Bob goes on philosophical tirades, commenting on existentialism and Zen Buddhism. This stands as a funny high-brow counterpoint to Terry’s straightforward, lowbrow expressions, and these are all memorable sequences and hilarious vignettes. As the film progresses, however, the constant depravity becomes tiring. Watching Peña curse at his children is funny the first time, but it soon becomes stale. It’s hard to watch deplorable protagonists for too long before we wish for some sort of change or catharsis. Heck, even Willie in Bad Santa learns to love a little.
The two do begin to change when they come up against the evil Lord Mangen (Theo James). James has spent the last five years as a sci-fi heartthrob in films like Underworld: Awakening and the Divergent series, and he clearly relishes the chance to play a cold, calculating Bond villain throwback. The more disgusting and irredeemable the protagonist, the worse the villain has to become — it’s like jailhouse rules. The only thing lower than a murderer and thief is a sexual deviant, and Mangen is just that. Though the details are sketchy, the villain has an appetite for younger children, and it’s this revelation that forces Terry and Bob into action.
If only this tonal shift were earned. We spend so much time watching these miscreants break the law and disregard their sworn duty that it’s difficult to see them shift from buffoons to heroes so quickly. Throughout the film, the narrative is uneven and incoherent. The duo’s true mission is a mystery, and there isn’t a MacGuffin in sight. McDonagh is obviously influenced by comic neo-noir like The Big Lebowski and Out of Sight; at one point, Pena even discusses Steven Soderbergh while watching the latter. Although McDonagh draws on the tone of these films, the narrative drive and character motivations are missing. The generic tropes necessary to propel the story just aren’t there. We have a feeling Terry has dealt with abuse firsthand, but even this is not enough to warrant an emotional investment.
The visual style is likewise uneven. The film opens with the two riding in a fancy 1970s muscle car. The saturated blue chrome of the car and deep black of Skarsgård’s jacket paint the first strokes of a retro film world. Later on, when we meet Mangen and Birdwell (Caleb Landry Jones), we see that their wardrobe and color palette also subscribe to this ’70s vibe. Between these few well-designed scenes, though, are flat and modern environments. The film oscillates between reality and fantasy so often that it’s hard to keep track. The variation in compositions is sometimes jarring as canted angles, Wes Anderson-esque centered frames, and slow-motion establishing shots are interspersed with somewhat standard shot/reverse shot setups. A cohesive film world is not present.
McDonagh seems to have more to say with War on Everyone, but the message is lost among the narrative and stylistic inconsistencies. Characters mention ISIS, women’s rights, and police brutality — all hot-button issues and pieces of social criticism — but they just don’t add up. Bob offers nuggets of wisdom as he pontificates, but our laughter deflects real understanding. The influence of the buddy comedies of Shane Black is obvious, but the film never reaches the heights of a film like Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. War on Everyone is sometimes funny, but it could have been so much more. At the conclusion, when Terry asks him what he thinks it all means, Bob says it’s like a Zen kōan, a story meant to inspire great doubt. If that’s the case, the film succeeds.