The Unlikely Lads
If someone makes a really great movie, does that mean you automatically go and see their next movie? There is something to be said for caution, after all: it does seem like some people only have one really great movie in them – look at Robin Hardy, who did The Wicker Man, or Douglas Hickox, who directed Theatre of Blood. But if someone makes two great movies on the spin that does earn them a pass, I think. Which brings us to John Michael McDonagh, who in 2011 made The Guard, a scabrous black comedy thriller which I loved, and in 2014 made Calvary, a drama which really impressed me. So naturally I went along to see his new film, War on Everyone.
This is probably – we will discuss this – a jet black parody of Hollywood buddy movies, with McDonagh's usual erudition and willingness to rip up the rulebook subtly stirred into the mix. The leads are Bob (Michael Pena) and Terry (Alexander Skarsgard), a pair of Albuquerque police detectives. It is quickly established that these guys take a very flexible view of the whole 'serve and protect' ethos as the opening sequence depicts them running someone over solely so they can nick his stuff.
Basically, they show no interest at all in actually, you know, upholding the law, and spend all their time trying to get rich in any way they possibly can: extorting bribes from criminals, ripping off the proceeds of successful bank robberies, and so on. 'Utterly and enthusiastically corrupt' only begins to describe these guys. Bob is also a fairly appalling parent, though his wife seems very fond of him, and Terry has various substance abuse problems too.
The arrival in town of Lord James Mangan, a well brought-up English criminal mastermind, proves significant for the boys, as he sets about orchestrating a huge heist at the local racetrack. Scenting an opportunity to advance themselves, basically by waiting for the robbery to succeed and then stealing the money from the robbers themselves, Bob and Terry obtrude themselves into Mangan's business, and things quickly turn quite nasty...
Well, this is obviously much more of a piece with The Guard (loud-mouthed, lairy) than the more thoughtful Calvary, and for all of the film's mostly-American setting and style McDonagh has brought along one of that's film's supporting cast (David Wilmot). But where The Guard had an undeniable warmth and an almost sitcom-like gentleness at times, War on Everyone is more of a full-throttle experience, uncompromising, harder edged. It almost feels to begin with as if McDonagh is prioritising outrageous jokes and situations over remotely credible characterisation – Bob and Terry aren't just corrupt, they are absurdly corrupt, Bob isn't a bad father, he's a ridiculously bad father. And it's so over-the-top that it's difficult to engage with the story for a while.
In fact it eventually started to seem to me that War on Everyone might in fact be a surreal, deadpan deconstruction of the classic Hollywood buddy movie, maintaining the general shape and conventions but emptying out all the content and replacing it with such bizarre material that the limitations of the form are thrown into sharp relief.
At one point, for example, Bob and Terry are looking for a suspect who they are basically looking to shake down for some immoral earnings, but they learn he has gone into hiding. In Iceland. So the scene changes to Iceland for literally about five minutes, until they go back to New Mexico, and it's very strange. Compounding the oddity is a moment where one of them asks the other what their plan is to find the man, who is African-American. The other admits he doesn't have a plan, but says something to the effect that 'there can't be many black people in Iceland, if we just stand here in the street we're bound to spot him sooner or later.' And the guy promptly walks past them.
There are parts of War on Everyone which almost move it into the 'a film with something to offend any decent person' category – and again, you wonder if McDonagh is just looking to satirise the excesses of political correctness, or satirise racism itself, or doesn't give a damn and is simply going for the most outrageous, near-the-knuckle jokes he can come up with. We see the boys down the police firing range at one point, and sure enough all the practice targets take the form of pictures of black men, some of whom have clearly already surrendered. You can't fault the director's willingness to go way out there, but given what's happened in the US recently, is that really funny?
The film becomes slightly more engaging as it goes on, and McDonagh is too good a director not to make a good-looking film with strong performances and moments along the way – he'll just switch off the plot for a moment for a dance routine, for instance, and the images and the soundtrack will conspire to create something genuinely great. But the need for a strong conclusion requires the film to become more conventional, and Bob and Terry inevitably discover some remnant of decency within themselves, provoking a heroic confrontation with the bad guys (their motivation for this is somewhat hackneyed).
In the end I would say War on Everyone isn't really close to the standard of either The Guard or Calvary, and it really is one of the strangest and most difficult to figure out films I've seen in a long time. In the end, McDonagh's intelligence and wit keep it watchable, giving the film a certain level of style – but while the film succeeds because of its style rather than its substance, I don't really think you can call it a triumph.