The latest film from John Michael McDonagh opens with high speed pursuit through the streets of Albuquerque, New Mexico. The gas guzzling engine of an American muscle car rumbles, tires screeching along the pavement on each and every turn. Two men sit comfortably in the car as it barrels down on their target, a mime. “I always wondered if you hit a mime, does he make a sound?” one of them asks right before the car smashes into the fleeing mime. And just like that in the first few minutes of War on Everyone, John Michael McDonagh establishes the tone of darkly comic action that will run throughout his latest film. There are no heroes in War on Everyone, just varying degrees of villains including the cops that take center stage. However, the chaotic immorality that runs through every frame of War on Everyone is infectiously entertaining, a mixture of sleazy crime drama and action movie tropes that make one hell of a cinematic cocktail.
Albuquerque Police officers Terry Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård) and Bob Bolaño (Michael Peña) are entirely corrupt. Simply put, these are bad cops. Their bad behavior has their boss Lt. Gerry Stanton (Paul Reiser) warning them that any further allegations of corruption and bribery will result in their dismissal from the police force. The threat of termination from their jobs doesn’t dissuade their bad behavior a bit, as Terry and Bob have no problem indulging excessively in alcohol and drugs as they shake down the local criminals for their piece of illicit loot. With a notorious criminal in town, Terry and Bob start harassing Reggie (Malcolm Barrett) about the plans for an upcoming heist with the intention of taking a large cut off the top of the haul. Meanwhile, the British aristocrat Lord James Mangan (Theo James) is overseeing his criminal empire with the help of the extremely effeminate Birdwell (Caleb Landry Jones). It’s only a matter of time before the criminal cops are in a showdown with a criminal mastermind with a million dollars on the line.
Outside of their life of corrupt law enforcement, Terry and Bob are close friends with wildly divergent personal lives. Bob is happily married to Delores (Stephanie Sigman), and the couple care for their two children. Meanwhile, Terry soon finds himself entangled in a relationship with Jackie (Tessa Thompson), a former stripper that Terry met while shaking down a local criminal. The two enter into an unusual relationship, one that sees the two lost souls forming a close bond. McDonagh wisely prevents Terry from being a savior to Jackie or vice versa, though each character certainly benefits from their relationship. The relationship creates a soft touch to the ragged edges of the hopeless alcoholic and excessively violent Terry without letting the character lose that wild edge that makes him so tragically endearing.
If there’s anything that viewers will find off-putting about War on Everyone it’s the film’s rampant immorality. There are no heroes in this movie. There are no good guys. The film’s protagonists (you can’t call them heroes) are devious and wholly corrupt, scheming to rip off anyone and everyone in the most violent way possible. There aren’t even good cops in the film, as we’re informed that even if they’re not corrupt they’re definitely racist pigs. However, McDonagh doesn’t convey this unflattering view of police in a preachy manner. It all unfolds in a lively, comedic take that subverts every trope employed by the violent renegade cop movies dating all the way back to Dirty Harry. The way McDonagh revels in the immorality of his characters seems to border on nihilism at times, though the writer-director makes it all so devilishly fun that this celebration of bad behavior never crosses over into full-blown nihilism.
For his first feature set outside of Ireland, John Michael McDonagh has crafted a sleazy cop story that seems to take the work of Shane Black and twist it to his own delights with witty banter and philosophical musings weaving in and out of seedy criminality permeating through every scene. If you though, as I did, that The Nice Guys was the sleaziest story that Raymond Chandler never told, War on Everyone takes it a step further with violence and sleaziness that might make Black blush. While I’d certainly say that War on Everyone is the weakest of John Michael McDonagh’s filmography, it’s still a rollicking good time at the movies that feels much closer to action beats of The Guard than the moral and religious quandary of Calvary. McDonagh uses War on Everyone to push the limits of the genre and in turn pushes the limits of likability with a set of characters that never come close to finding redemption. The writer-director doesn’t dare use his story to try and punish his characters, which is something that I bet a lot of people will want done to these dirty cops. But what’s really the point of that? War on Everyone makes being bad so much damn fun.
War on Everyone is currently available to rent exclusively on DirecTV. It opens in select theaters and will be available on most VOD platforms starting on February 3rd.