Leave it to John Michael McDonagh, the Irish screenwriter behind the brilliantly moral Cavlary and devilishly amoral The Guard, to shred apart American mythology of the interracial cop comedy. McDonagh's War on Everyone is Lethal Weapon taken to its most brazen extent with a pair of psychologically unhinged and ethically bankrupt cops routinely pushing the bounds of good taste. These boys in blue...er, boys in perfectly tailored suits, are the kind we love to hate. It's when the movie wants us to just love them that it falls apart.
I can only imagine this was the most fun set ever because Michel Pena and Alexander Skarsgard are having a ball as corrupt New Mexico detectives Bob Bolaño and Terry Monroe. Calling these guys corrupt doesn't really do them justice, actually. "I always wondered if you hit a mime if they make a sound", Bob ponders moments before Terry drives right over one. Turns out they don't. These guys have no problem kicking innocent people in the nuts, then threatening to plant drugs on an informant (Malcolm Barrett) before snorting it with him. Bob is actually the more reserved and level-headed of the duo...reasonably. He's got a family and stuff (the beautiful Stephanie Sigman is his wife), so I guess he'd be the Murtaugh of this dynamic duo. Terry is an utter wild card; tall and powerful and usually drunk or high out of his mind, he's like a Nordic caveman chipped out of ice and handed a badge.
So what is the method to Bob and Terry's madness, anyway? Both have an acceptance that their shenanigans can't last forever and that some kind of jail scenario (or death) is in their future. They just want to gather up enough cash from the folks they blackmail to retire quietly. Even their captain (Paul Reiser) seems to think they deserve to be locked up, but who cares because the entire force is either racist or homicidal, especially those SWAT guys.
What McDonagh is doing isn't particularly novel; he's inviting us to critique the genre's tropes while indulging in them. It's not that far away from what Shane Black pulled off to greater success in The Nice Guys. War on Everyone's problem is that it can't maintain its viciously cold heart for very long, and doesn't actually add anything to the genre it mocks. To put Bob and Terry into proper perspective there must be someone worse, and that falls to Theo James as a pompous British lord, and Caleb Landry Jones as his effeminate sing-songy lackey. Watching James set aside his hyper-masculine aura to play a glorified Bond villain is a real treat, and he fits right in with the tone set by Pena and Skarsgard. In particular, Pena's exhausted "Who gives a shit?" delivery is on point. In the film's funniest yet easily-missable moment, Bob reaches to flash his badge at a witness, but failing to find it right where it should be he simply holds up his hand as if to say "Fuck it, just assume I have it." He even mixes in some highbrow reflection when we least expect it. Honestly, Pena's one of the few actors who could pull that off in this lowbrow atmosphere. Skarsgard grunts and drinks his way through a fairly monosyllabic performance, really only coming alive when sharing the screen with the breath-taking Tessa Thompson. Not only does she look great in her majorette uniform, but she and Skarsgard get to cut a rug to the tune of "Rhinestone Cowboy", a definite highlight.
Ultimately there comes a point where we have to be made to see the depths of Bob and Terry's humanity. A child abuse angle and a threat of violence against women are shoehorned into the plot in an effort to show how much they really do care about people, and to get us to root for them to exact lethal vengeance. That compromise on McDonagh's part doesn't jibe with the vulgar humor and macho aggression he usually traffics in and that we love so much. We don't need or want War on Everyone to go soft; we want its war on decency to rage on.
Rating: 3 out of 5