Does a mime make a sound when you hit him with a car? This and other questions you’ve never asked are answered over the course of War on Everyone, the third film from director John Michael McDonagh. After sticking with rural Ireland for previous efforts The Guard and Calvary, he’s crossed the pond to New Mexico this time around, though has stuck with the otherwise familiar territory of booze, drugs, and violence.
Alexander Skarsgård and Michael Peña are the cops in question, for whom the rules aren’t even guidelines, they’re more something to note with curiosity as you shamelessly flout them. From beating suspects, to stealing from them, to planting drugs on them (and then taking those same drugs with them), they don’t exactly do the badge proud — when they can even be bothered to carry it.
War on Everyone is at its most fun when it’s allowing the pair to wreak havoc, driving through the doors of a strip club or drinking themselves into oblivion. Skarsgård in particular is a delight — while his character is a touch underwritten, he brings him to life as a sort of drunken cross between a child and a Panzer tank. Shoulders hunched forwards, he lurches through scenes as if he can’t quite handle his own bulked up mass, only to break the tension with a goofy grin.
Peña is comparatively restrained, turning in a performance rather like a calmed down version of his sidekick role in last year’s Ant-Man. Tessa Thompson is utterly wasted in a role that does disservice to the term ‘token female’, while Theo James pouts about the place as the villainous Brit Lord James Mangan. Meanwhile Caleb Landry Jones seems to have drunkenly stumbled in from a different set entirely, his affected, effeminate henchman less implausible and more utterly incomprehensible. It’s not clear what he and McDonagh were aiming for here, but they sure as hell missed.
If the performances prove mixed, the script follows suit. Its highs are undeniably high: from the opening mime gag to a hunt for a crook in Iceland (the hilarious Malcolm Barrett, who frequently threatens to steal not only his scenes, but everyone else’s too), when War on Everyone hits the mark it turns out some of this year’s funniest moments. It’s raucous, offensive, and clever enough to get away with some exceptionally stupid jokes.
Unfortunately, for every high there’s a comedown, and War on Everyone suffers from a few too many lulls in the action: repeated sequences where joke after joke misses, and the plot grinds to a halt. That plot is pretty insubstantial even at the best of times — there’s rarely much sense of who’s doing what or why, and McDonagh’s script seems more interested in setting up the next joke than putting it into any context where it might make sense. The weak narrative would be forgivable if the jokes were more consistent, or if the film didn’t take an ill-advised trip into more serious material towards its end. McDonagh’s shown he can merge the weighty and the weightless in both his previous films, but it’s clumsier here, robbing the finale of its heft.
In all then, War on Everyone is a fun film that gets by on the strength of its two leads and a few moments of dogged inspiration in the script. The film never quite lives up to its potential or its promise, but it will make you laugh, and maybe that’s enough.
Words by Dominic Preston