War on Everyone surrenders the meaning of its title in its opening sequence, a car chase involving two Albuquerque cops, Terry Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård) and Bob Bolaño (Michael Peña), and a mime caught red-handed with a duffel bag full of cocaine. The mime gasses out and gives up, hands in the air, bag on the ground. “I always wondered,” muses Bob, “If you hit a mime, does he make a sound?” Terry stays on course. The mime stares in pleading, bewildered horror. The car smacks into him, and he crumples silently to the pavement. “Well, now you know,” says Terry, and so begins an hour and thirty-odd minutes of Skarsgård and Peña acting like large-diameter assholes: They swear at kids, brutalize perps, flaunt their authority, taunt minorities and crack wise about national tragedies. When they manage to do right, they do so begrudgingly.
Which is the immediate significance of War on Everyone, a movie made by John Michael McDonagh perhaps as a response to all manner of shitty American behavior, literal and dramatized. The true significance of the title is slightly more figurative. Terry and Bob are quite a duo, the former hunched and loping as though embarrassed to tower over his partner, the latter wearing a smile that suggests he’s perpetually pleased with himself. They spare no one’s honor as they cross every legal and moral line drawn before them in their pursuit of justice, whatever their concept of “justice” may be. Watching War on Everyone is like watching a white stand-up comic encourage his variegated live and in-house audiences to laugh at themselves while he bags on every demographic other than his own, except McDonagh says plenty about Terry, about Bob, about our society, about the systems that tacitly accept bullies wearing badges (and our acceptance of those systems). He also happens to be funny.
War on Everyone isn’t McDonagh’s first attempt at blending black comedy with buddy cop hijinks; 2011’s The Guard, his filmmaking debut, put Brendan Gleeson in the role of a loutish lawman whose fondness for drugs is matched only by his love for his ailing mom. He’s an oaf, but an oaf with a heart of gold. The same is true of Terry and Bob, but you’ve got to look closely to catch a telltale glimmer. The film begins as they return to work from suspension, a punishment for beating up a racist peer, and immediately sniff out a developing heist planned by Lord James Mangan (Theo James), a smug, entrepreneurial Brit with his fingers on the pulse of New Mexico’s criminal underworld. Following genre traditions, Terry and Bob have no idea who Mangan is or that he’s even involved, and so they busy themselves by harassing small-time local crooks, like Malcolm (Reggie Barrett) and his associate Pádraic (David Wilmot).
Events dictate that Terry and Bob must eventually cross paths with Mangan, but War on Everyone doesn’t hasten the inevitable. Instead it luxuriates in its protagonists’ repugnance, contrasting their amorality on the job with their vastly differing personal lives: Bob lives with his wife, Delores (Stephanie Sigman), and their two sons, who affectionately refer to Terry as uncle, while Terry lives alone in a contemporary, sparsely decorated apartment whose blankness lets us write any sad backstory for Terry we please across its austere interior. He’s a mope, cheeriest in general when abusing his power, but he’s never happier than when he dances with Jackie (Tessa Thompson), a former stripper who cuts a rug with him to Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy” in one of the film’s most joyful sequences.
McDonagh isn’t one to shy away from exuberance. It’s splashed across his mise en scène, housed in the performances of his cast and written into his stylishly brainy screenplay, each of which clang purposefully with the film’s wanton, amoral core. War on Everyone is a bad taste movie on its surface, a production that makes light of police violence at a time in American life where police violence is a matter not to be made light of, but beneath that surface is a vein of criticism: If your country endorses that sort of gross misconduct, it affects you whether you care to admit it or not. When McDonagh says “war on everyone,” he means war on everyone, and on everything, from common decency to human compassion. Yes, Terry and Bob run drug dealers, child porn peddlers and murderers out of town. Yes, they have conscience enough to recognize right from wrong. No, that doesn’t exactly make them role models, though being as War on Everyone is short on charitable human beings, they’re about as close as the film gives us.
You don’t have to watch War on Everyone in anticipation of commentary on American policing (though as McDonagh clearly has a bone to pick with cops, it’s unthinkable not to). You can just watch it as a bawdy, vulgar, willfully coarse entertainment that zips from New Mexico to Iceland and back on a whim, where Chekhov’s gun is but one piece in a veritable armory, where bullets fly as fast as smart-ass quips and sophisticated cultural nods, from Simone de Beauvoir to Andrew Wyeth, and where Skarsgård and Peña gleefully snort a heap of white powder off of a baby changing table. But this is a film that doesn’t give a damn about your politics, because its subject doesn’t give a damn about your politics, either: The mockery it makes of our corrupt law enforcement agencies is the mockery those agencies make of America itself.
Director: John Michael McDonagh
Writer: John Michael McDonagh
Starring: Alexander Skarsgård, Michael Peña, Theo James, Tessa Thompson, Malcolm Barrett, Caleb Landry Jones, Paul Reiser, David Wilmot, Stephanie Sigman
Release Date: February 3, 2017
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He writes additional words for The Playlist, Slant Magazine, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.