I’m not sure if any bad cops in the whole genre of bad cop comedy have paid so little lip
service to actual policing as the pair in John Michael McDonagh’s "War on
Everyone." And I’m not sure that
the genre has produced such an irresistibly funny film.
When we first see New Mexico police officers Bob Balaño (Michael Peña) and Terry Monroe
(Alexander Skarsgård), they are speeding after a Marcel Marceau look-alike who’s
on foot. “I’ve always wondered — if you hit a mime, does he make a sound?” asks
Bob of his colleague at the wheel, a drunk who’s unable, or more likely
unwilling, to drive in a straight line. They soon find the answer.
We never once see Bob and Terry on an actual case, even
though one suspects their combined skill set would make them pretty good at law enforcement; interestingly, their boss (Paul Reiser) never
mentions casework either, merely berating them for the assault charges his men
seem to stack up. Instead, they use their badges to blackmail or swindle criminals
and line their own pockets with impunity.
The corruption on display isn’t new; what feels refreshing
is the gay abandon with which these two do it, and the very peculiar nature of
their chalk and cheese characters. Peña’s verbal dexterity has often been put to
the service of fools ("Ant-Man") or secondary comic support ("The Martian"),
but here he’s center stage and the brains of the partnership; when Bob is at
home he’s debating Simone de
Beauvoir and Andre Breton with his wife (Stephanie Sigman) or giving his
kids a rum moral education. In contrast Terry is a battering ram, constantly
inebriated, running mostly on instinct, living alone in an empty apartment and inspired
only by his love of Glen Campbell.
There’s a little of Laurel and Hardy about them, albeit
Stan and Ollie with heavy armory and a penchant for Class A drugs; but for
Brits of a certain age, they also, surely, represent a nod to the working class
scallywags Bob and Terry of "The Likely Lads," a BBC sitcom from the 1960s. McDonagh
isn’t adverse to personal in-jokes; another sees a blink-and-you’ll miss, very
sly dig at his fellow filmmaking brother, Martin.
The plot sees the cops take on more than they can chew when
trying to muscle in on a robbery masterminded by a decadent English Lord (Theo
James) and his psychotic right-hand man (Caleb Landry Jones). The style is a
fond pastiche of Seventies cop films and, particularly, TV’s "Starksy and Hutch" — with fast shiny convertibles, snappy clothes and a snazzy soundtrack, wipes
to move the narrative along and the entertaining presence of Reggie X (Malcolm
Barrett), the cops’ Black Muslim informant and a shrewdly drawn antidote to Huggie
It’s the smart, sexually indeterminate Reggie who takes the film
on one of its many surprising detours, to Iceland. Non-sequitur of one kind or another is one of McDonagh’s
favourite tools. But he pretty much throws the kitchen sink at this — the jokes
are visual and verbal, erudite and broad, and with targets in every direction
of sexuality, race and physical impairment.
Anyone rushing to charge the film with political incorrectness just needs to settle
down, because the cracks rarely involve ill will, and as often as not it’s Terry who’s looking like an idiot. If anything,
McDonagh’s writing is fallible when you can feel it working too hard; he’s not
as good as his brother at concealing the cogs.
Despite moments of physical violence, this is much lighter
than his previous films "The Guard" (also involving a corrupt cop, of course)
and "Calvary." That said, Skarsgård — so good as the handsome dolt — just
shades the acting honors for the way he slowly introduces the dark
secrets that inform Terry’s personality and inadvertently lead him towards a shot at redemption, which in turn ensures that this guilty
pleasure remains original to the end.