War on Everyone | 2016 Berlin Intl. Film Festival Review
Let’s Be Bad Cops: McDonagh’s U.S. Visit an Overworked Episode
Director John Michael McDonagh makes his first foray to the US with third feature, War on Everyone. Brother of writer/director Martin McDonagh (In Bruges; Seven Psychopaths), he exudes a similar sense of bleak, misanthropic comedy mixed up in shaggy genre thrills, and his first feature, the celebrated The Guard (2011) remains the most financially successful independent Irish film of all time. McDonagh reteamed with Brendan Gleeson on his second feature, the equally idiosyncratic and enjoyable Cavalry (2014). But even though McDonagh isn’t crossing a language barrier, something tenuous seems lost in this trip to New Mexico wherein two affably crooked cops are determined to ruthlessly exploit the criminals they’re supposed to be arresting. This pronouncedly off-kilter motley crew of characters bears a similar resemblance to McDonagh’s past troubled social landscapes, but his deliberate refusal of logic seems distracting and belabored here, a crime thriller comedy which seems like a fantasy from a bizarre parallel universe. Though it isn’t without its entertaining qualities and brimming with off color humor, McDonagh’s latest creation of warped, greedy human beings seems just a bit too flat, a zaniness unchecked by his usual injection of recognizable human emotion.
Recently returning to duty following a probationary period for assaulting one of their fellow officers, detectives Bob (Michael Pena) and Terry (Alexander Skarsgard) seem determined to continue their tradition of waywardness and havoc. Rather than arrest criminals and follow up on leads, the illegally inclined duo intentionally exploit their targets for their own financial gain. Their latest escapade involves crafting a heist via the use of their reluctant informant Reggie (Malcolm Barrett). But the street savvy partners may have dived into a situation over their heads when they discover Reggie is also working the heist’s angle for the head of a vicious criminal syndicate (Theo James), a man consumed by a decadent world of drugs and fluid promiscuity. Terry’s budding romance with a bit player he meets in their quest, a stripper-cum-majorette (Tessa Thompson) complicates matters.
War on Everyone unfortunately can’t escape a certain sense of contrivance, something McDonagh’s previous films were able to elude (particularly the familiarity of his lauded debut). The feeling is akin to Martin McDonagh’s crossover to the US with 2012’s Seven Psychopaths, a film overstuffed and desperate to elicit shocks and guffaws, also a disappointment to the comparable ease of his previous effort. McDonagh taps DoP Bobby Bukowski, a cinematographer who overwhelmingly handles dramatic narratives (as in the recent Rosewater or The Iceman or 99 Homes), and his visual treatment of New Mexico makes the arid landscape resemble an endless, uneventful ghost town. It’s interesting to compare his rendering of these deserted streets, mostly populated only by the characters in question, to his unsung work on Oren Moverman’s New York set Time Out of Mind (2014). Standalone sequences of dialogue framed off center or tilted on the side reflect a certain sense of a world-on-a-wire for these supremely fearless cops whose behavior seems more cartoonish than grotesque (like Skarsgard’s refusal to park his vehicle without inflicting severe damage on every occasion).
Beginning with its opening sequence of a criminal mime being ruthlessly run down by Bob and Terry, War on Everyone sets a tone equivalent to something like “Reno 911” mixed with the goofiness of Let’s Be Cops while sucking the residuum of Ferrara’s or Herzog’s pronounced visions of Bad Lieutenant. Pena’s casting doesn’t help issues of familiarity, considering a comparable, if less bombastic role in David Ayer’s End of Watch (2012), and a host of other similarly politically incorrect comic characters.
McDonagh favors Skarsgard’s dopey cowboy, who recalls a vintage Jon Voight, allowed a bit of a character arc thanks to his romance with the continually enjoyable Tessa Thompson (one of the film’s best highlights). But the dastardly depths eventually revealed about the criminal supervillains and their grotesque sexual exploitation of children feels like a convenient way to manipulate these problematic cop characters into urban heroes. In reality, their lackadaisical moral limits hardly seem to matter in the context of their selfish, irresponsible behavior. Surely, their deviousness is amusing, but when McDonagh pulls his usual switch to solemnity, it feels merely a superficial necessity to sail us to a meaningful finale.
Caleb Landry Jones is also a standout, albeit in the kind of camp mode assisted by his tousled flaming locks and blotched mascara, visuals similarly afflicting his fictional character in Stonewall. But one gets the sense something more daring could have been done with his effete villainy (likewise, the depiction of Reggie and a trans lover find McDonagh making it clear he wishes to sidestep accusations of homophobia or offensive characterizations of queer characters). Other pretty faces are limited to their unenthusiastically rendered roles, such as Theo James as the very British, very dapper syndicate head, and Stephanie Sigman in yet another performance as a peripherally concerned significant other. A surprise turn from Paul Reiser is thwarted by adolescent minded politically incorrect comedy (including a particularly wince worthy moment utilizing an Asian racial slur).
Interesting but not quite intriguing, War on Everyone manages to dance around classification as a misfire. For those who appreciated McDonagh’s previous two features, some degree of disappointment is in store since he never captures anything redeeming about these troubled American denizens.
Reviewed on February 16 at the 2015 Berlin International Film Festival – Panorama Section. 98 Mins.