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Berlin Review: John Michael McDonagh’s ‘War On Everyone’ With Michael Pena & Alexander Skarsgard

Berlin Review: John Michael McDonagh's 'War On Everyone' With Michael Pena & Alexander Skarsgard

Lesbians. The Burmese. Maybe farmers. With all the minorities, interest groups, nationalities sexualities, and ethnicities that John Michael McDonagh finds time to craft a specially designed slur for, or chuck a throwaway insult at, in his shambolic, shaggy, occasionally very funny “War on Everyone,” it becomes a fun game to work out if there’s anyone who definitely will not be offended. I don’t think Tibetans get a mention, and I’m pretty sure meteorologists and albinos emerge unscathed. Everyone else — including the short, the bald, the fat, the bearded, the female, the black, the Muslim, the Quaker, the homeless, those afflicted with Down Syndrome or Multiple Sclerosis, the British, the Irish, the Icelandic, the generally European, the transgender, the male homosexual, the Japanese, the effeminate, the aristocrat, the Mexican, the alcoholic, the Stephen Hawking, the dyslexic, anyone on the fence about the music of Glen Campbell or partial to the art of mime or involved in law enforcement — is sure to find something in the film to take umbrage at, if they’re inclined to sensitivity. The clue is right there in the title. McDonagh declares a kind of verbal, bad-taste-based war on everyone.

READ MORE: Watch The First Clip From John Michael McDonagh’s ‘War On Everyone’

The dialogue fizzes and then stings like a spiked cocktail, but sluicing around in there somewhere is a ramshackle plot, and that is not nearly as successful as the bid for equal-opportunity offense. New Mexico cops Bob (a stratospherically good Michael Pena, more on him in a bit) and Terry (a charming Alexander Skarsgard) are the perfect model of corruption. But their highly unethical behavior (censured by Paul Reiser in a nice little turn as their frazzled but genial captain) does adhere to some sort of skewed code of likability: they plan to steal a million dollars, but it’s from some Very Bad Men so that’s okay; when they plant cocaine on a potential informer in order to get him to turn snitch, they end up sharing the stash with him in a nearby baby changing stall, so that’s okay; and when things finally do turn confusedly, lethally bloody, it’s against a paedophile, so you know, also totally justified. En route, there’s a sudden, very funny detour to Iceland, a hint of romantic salvation for the alcoholic and lonely Terry in the comely shape of Jackie (Tessa Thompson), and a lot of careening round in a sleek muscle car, “Starsky and Hutch“-style. Oh and if “running and shooting while wearing a sharp three-piece suit” were an Olympic sport, Skarsgard would have medalled by now.

Problem is, McDonagh, wanting to write characters he clearly loves into a genre he also has obvious affection for, needs a plot. And that plot needs antagonists, so enter Theo James‘ dastardly, louche British aristocrat villain, and his sniveling, lisping sidekick Russell (Caleb Landry Jones). James, actually asked to do something other than be extraordinarily handsome for once, rises to the occasion surprisingly well, especially during a scene in which he casually extinguishes his two moppet daughters’ belief that “Mommy is in heaven” by asserting that “death is just darkness forever. Now run along and play.” Landry Jones does not fare so well however, in a shuffling, tic-laden turn that irritates far more than it amuses. Beyond the performances there’s a flatness to the way these scenes are written, and a kind of desultory style to how they’re shot, because McDonagh’s interest (and ours) lies mostly with his main guys. It’s basically annoying to have to spend so much time elucidating a plot that really makes balls-all sense anyway and relies on old chestnuts like “all the bad guys being terribly bad shots” and “Surprise! Bullet-proof vest!” during the unconvincing “shootout in a warehouse” climax.

It’s also annoying simply to be taken away from Pena, whose charm and talent should hereby be given the status of a precious national resource and mined by specially trained professionals in pith helmets. It would be possible to think that without McDonagh’s regular collaborator Brendan Gleeson (“The Guard,” “Calvary“) aboard there would be little chance of anyone convincingly selling those monologues, crammed with so many chunky references to high and low culture it’s like constantly talking through a mouthful of Rocky Road. But Pena is perfectly on that wavelength, and it is genuinely just a joy to see a perennial MVP character actor made the hero of a film, be it ever so compromised.

READ MORE: The 10 Most Anticipated Films From The 2016 Berlin Film Festival

So when the film centers on Bob and Terry, it’s an almost exclusively pleasurable watch, especially if you like your taste questionable and your back-and forth peppered with allusions to Siegfried and Roy and to Heloise and Abelard, oftentimes in the same breath. But wordplay and charisma do not alone a great film make, and “War on Everyone” is lacking in some very basic basics, with its incomprehensible plotline, herky-jerk characterization, gigantic leaps in logic, and cast of characters who, with differing levels of success, all sound remarkably like John Michael McDonagh. Which is to say essentially equal parts Tarantino, Encyclopedia Britannica, The Boys-Own Amazing Facts Annual circa 1983, and “Finnegan’s Wake.

But perhaps more detrimental overall, and also more disappointing as the follow-up to “Calvary,” which saw McDonagh moving into a more seriously satirical register after the broader “The Guard,” is that in getting busy assassinating everything in sight, no theme is left standing by the end. A few of McDonagh’s swipes feel pointed (especially those aimed with wincing accuracy at the the recent track record of the U.S. police in regards to brutality and racial profiling) and some perhaps reveal prejudices unintentionally on the way to a cheap laugh. But mostly they are so scattershot and so often quickly repudiated by a countering move that it feels like there’s no overarching target at all. Does the scene where Michael Pena and Alexander Skarsgard bow exaggeratedly and affect terrible Japanese accents childishly parroting “Sayonara” to a trio of Japanese people, get balanced out when a few moments later Theo James’s sneering arch-villain quotes Yukio Mishima? Does it compensate for the sidelining of the female characters (which is a shame when they’re two such strong presences as Tessa Thompson and Stephanie Sigman) that when they do get to talk it’s to lay bets about whether a particular quote originated with Simone De Beauvoir or to compare the boss of a strip club to “Diaghilev of the Ballet Russe”? Not exactly, but it does mean you emerge with the feeling of the film as a thematic zero-sum game. 

There is a great joy in seeing people doing dumb genre movie things speaking like coked-up philosophy majors. And “War on Everyone,” after a shaky prologue which threatened massive quirk overload as the duo trade quips while pursing a mime, suggests that John Michael has weathered the stateside transition much better than his brother Martin did with “Seven Psychopaths.” But entertaining though it is in parts, it can’t really be said to mark any particular growth for McDonagh as a filmmaker, being both less angry and more cynical that the brooding “Calvary” and consequently less memorable and relevant too. It’s hard to be too down on a movie that gleefully revels in tossed-off asides like “Keep on being obstreperous and I’ll kick you into Indo-China” but that’s the issue with “War on Everyone” — it’s a movie composed entirely of asides. “Everyone” is just too broad a target. [B-]

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