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A Berlinale world premiere, John Michael McDonagh’s third feature is an irreverent action comedy that riffs knowingly on vintage buddy-cop movies. The Irish-born, London-based writer-director has described War on Everyone as a comic twist on The French Connection, but there are other echoes in here, too, from Quentin Tarantino to Guy Ritchie, Starsky and Hutch to Lethal Weapon. But while there is clearly guilty pleasure to be gleaned from reworking such time-honored genre conventions, McDonagh’s first American-made feature is only a partial success, lacking the sharp wit and moral heft that characterized his past work.
McDonagh previously dealt with crooked cops in his 2011 debut, The Guard. Three years later he fashioned a masterful black comedy from heavyweight questions of faith and guilt in his second feature, Calvary. Both films starred Brendan Gleeson, both were set in the west of Ireland and both earned critical raves followed by modest commercial success. War on Everyone lacks the profane mania of the former and the philosophical weight of the latter, but its modestly marquee-friendly cast and rowdy comic energy could still add up to decent commercial returns.
Terry Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard) and Bob Bolano (Michael Pena) are cheerfully corrupt detective partners dispensing their own ethically dubious brand of justice in Albuquerque, N.M. These fast-talking, hard-drinking, wise-cracking anti-heroes take relish in brazenly blackmailing, robbing and beating up all the criminals on their turf. In a nod to the film’s 1970s roots, they also wear sharp suits, blast around the city in a stylishly retro car and work for a long-suffering precinct chief (Paul Reiser) who is perpetually giving these insubordinate bad boys one last chance while City Hall leans on him to fire them.
Terry and Bob get into deep water when a planned racetrack heist involving African-American Muslim convert Reggie X (Malcolm Barrett) ends in a bloodbath, which leads the duo to sexually indeterminate strip-club boss Birdwell (Caleb Landry Jones) and former stripper Jackie (Tessa Thompson). Smelling a big payday for themselves, the partners track down Reggie in hiding in Iceland, a picturesque and enjoyable silly interlude. But the pair rediscover their long-dormant consciences in time for a violent showdown with the godfather behind the heist, English aristocrat Mangan (Theo James, channeling the young Rupert Everett), whose louche old-world manners mask some diabolical crimes.
War on Everyone is a little too keen to advertise its own cleverness. The characters feel more like random collections of quirky tics than real people, with Terry defined by his chronic alcoholism and his love of Glen Campbell, a recurring musical motif throughout the film. Others trade wry quips about their own status as racial stereotypes and knowingly reference cop-movie conventions. As Reggie shrugs during a routine shakedown: “I’m familiar with the whole cop-slash-informer dialectic.” A steady stream of elevated cultural allusions — Simone de Beauvoir, Joseph Conrad, Marcel Duchamp — gestures towards a level of intellectual ambition that the underlying script never matches. A cliché is a cliché, however ironically packaged.
McDonagh and his cinematographer Bobby Bukowski make attractive use of the New Mexico landscape, from grand mountain vistas to gleaming modernist villas perched on the edge of the desert. The oldies-heavy pop soundtrack is a lively mixtape that punctuates Glen Campbell with Roberta Flack, The Clash, hip-hoppers M.O.P. and more. War on Everyone is an entertaining smash-and-grab raid on some familiar action-comedy tropes, but not much more.
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Panorama)
Production company: Reprisal Films
Cast: Michael Pena. Alexander Skarsgard, Theo James, Tessa Thompson, Malcolm Barrett,
Caleb Landry Jones
Director-screenwriter: John Michael McDonagh
Producers: Chris Clark, Flora Fernandez Marengo, Phil Hunt, Compton Ross
Cinematographer: Bobby Bukowski
Editor: Chris Gill
Music: Lorne Balfe
Sales: Bankside Films, London
Not rated, 98 minutes
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