Skip to main content

Oh, shit! Hey, we are the cops!

War on Everyone
(2016)

(SPOILERS) John Michael McDonagh’s latest is all over the place, in much the same way his younger brother’s Seven Psychopaths was all over the place, only less coherently and satisfyingly in the end result. Which isn’t to say War on Everyone isn’t, for the most part, hugely enjoyable, in a gleefully provocative, disgracefully inappropriate and unruly manner, but that the most propitious milieu for the McDonaghs may not be Stateside, where the impulse to move towards – for want of a better word – Tarantino-esque crime storytelling may ultimately detract from all the other elements fighting for air.


It also bears noting that dabbling in more traditional crime movie territory (albeit, as he repeats several times on the commentary, to madcap or surrealist effect) exposes McDonagh’s limitations as a director, and perhaps as a screenwriter trying to bite off more than he can chew (although, don’t impugn the latter to him directly, or he’ll start asking you to prove you can do better). War on Everyone frequently comes across as almost recklessly undisciplined, so loosely threading its string of characters and targets that one begins to assume its intentional. After all, both The Guard (easily McDonagh’s best) and Calvary (his most thematically rich, but also ultimately slightly disappointing as a result) clearly knew exactly what they wanted to say, what story they wanted to tell, and how they wanted to tell it.


There’s never such a sure sense of grip and purpose here. Indeed, the subplot concerning child abuse comes across as unfortunately glib, a misjudgement given the director has previously tackled the subject with due weight; it feels tacked on for the sake of giving our heroes’ a just cause (Skarsgård’s character’s history in this regard is also too oblique to really offer substance or weight, and a scene in which the villain reads Alice Through the Looking Glass to his bikini-clad daughters gives off a similar air of ill-advised frivolity). Indeed, the showdown brought to mind the first part of Red Riding Trilogy, but not in any kind of tonally recognisable sense.


Of course, the slipshod approach is in partly announced by the all-comers title. War on Everyone is much better as an idea for a movie than a banner, lacking the bite to accompany its misanthropic invitation. Bad Santa did something similar, but War on Everyone is woolly, one-part politically spun but too broad in remit to actually mean anything much in the end analysis. Albuquerque detectives Terry Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård) and Bob Bolaño (Michael Peña) are the least positive examples of law enforcement imaginable (McDonagh litters the story with references to injustices, from The Algiers Motel Incident to the “contentious issue” of whether some SWAT guys had a good or bad shoot), always looking to grift the hoodlums and displaying a wanton disregard for due process or anything approximating upholding the principles of the job.


Terry: You’re a dyslexic, and you’ve got multiple sclerosis?
Power: Yeah, I’ve had a lot of hard luck in my life.

McDonagh takes unbridled relish in his characters saying and doing what they shouldn’t, from Terry and Bob’s lieutenant Paul Reiser down (“I’m married to a Chink myself” he says, professing sympathy over the racist abuse Bob has suffered from colleagues), the concept of political correctness being a quaint hood ornament. And the targets range from the surreal (“I always wondered, if you hit a mime, does he makes a sound?”), to the entirely insensitive (“It used to be called stupidity” Bob replies, when David Wilmot’s Pádraic Power protests that he is dyslexic, the first of a series of ridiculous disabilities with which he claims to be afflicted). Bob is no less dismissive of his kids, making particular time to deal out insults to his obese eldest son.


Bob: He would have tried to kill them, if he had the chance, Quaker or not.

The level of absurdity is sufficiently heightened that there are times this could easily switch places with a Will Ferrell-style comedy. Entering the house of a woman who has just stabbed her husband to death (he was a key player in their latest scam), the duo casually munch burgers at the crime scene as she wails unceasingly (“Can we play a little game of shut the fuck up?” asks the unsympathetic Bob). Terry becomes frustrated over losing at tennis to a pair of burka-clad opponents and does a tremendous pterodactyl impression as he threatens a toupee’d, pint-sized jockey. McDonagh even flirts with self-immolation in a conversation on quality porn movies (“It starts and ends with the script. If you ain’t got a good script, you ain’t got shit”).


A shootout in a mall finds the boys using a waiter and a guy on a mobility scooter as human shields while a mariachi band plays on, oblivious. Tracking down their ill-gotten gains leads them to Iceland, where they are confident of finding Reggie (Malcolm Barrett) quickly (“How many fucking black people do you think there are in Iceland?”); right on cue, they spot him. Reggie is shacked up with a transgender partner, leading to a blithely indiscreet conversation regarding the former’s sexual orientation (“Straight, huh? With an asterisk?”) A kid begging outside a supermarket is confronted over the bad spelling of his “homles” sign (“Bad presentation, it’s why you’re broke”) and, on discovering he is the son of the stabbed man who took flight, they debate what to do with him (“Social Services? We may as well sell him to the fucking Philippines”).


McDonagh, being a very literate fellow (a playwright, no less), naturally also takes in art and philosophy, mainly via Bob’s well-read wife (Stephanie Sigman), and Terry's girlfriend (Tessa Thompson) – who comments "Was that actually murder, philosophically speaking?" of her father, who committed suicide-murder when he killed another man after the bullet passed through his brain, taking out another man sitting next to him – but throws in off-the-cuff lines throughout (“He wrote a well-regarded monogram on André Breton. And he had a nice dick”; “But then again, Pythagoras believed that, after you’re dead, your soul goes into a fucking green bean”).


The cast acquit themselves with honours; Pena is the business in everything, a ball of irrepressible, mischievous energy, while Skarsgård, all stooped, ape shoulders and deader-than-deadpan, somewhat atones for The Legend of Tarzan (he replaced Garrett Hedlund and was cast after McDonagh saw footage of him drunk at a football game), although he isn’t naturally the most sympathetic of actors.


Theo James, as villain Lord James Mangan gives off the vibe of a low-rent Rupert Everett, just without the charm or charisma, while whatever Caleb Landry Jones is doing as his enervated henchman Russell Birdwell, I’m not quite sure, but it’s entirely scene-stealing (I see he’s appearing in the other McDonagh’s next). Barrett wears a suitably beleaguered face throughout, at the confounding behaviour of his unwanted cop associates, while Paul Reiser scores as their ineffectual superior. David Wilmot has appeared in all three McDonagh movies, and he’s on particularly chucklesome form with his running gag of debilitating conditions (“I’m an only child”). He even provides laughs in death (“I thought you were going to keep it as a souvenir or something” Bob comments, when Terry retrieves his head to give it a proper burial).


War on Everyone’s such an avalanche of quotable lines and hilarious vignettes, it seems grouchy to suggest it doesn’t hang together terribly well. McDonagh might argue the scattershot aesthetic is intentional, but another director might have been able to give this more form and rhythm (the sadly-departed Tony Scott, in True Romance mode, springs to mind). He throws in plenty of Dutch angles and is a veritable hive of information about shots he has quoted from other movies, but he hasn’t fashioning them into stylistically cohesive whole. Most movies have a discernible trajectory, whereas War on Everyone ricochets to its destination without any clear intent, pace or plan. It’s immensely likeable in its unreconstituted, dyspeptic levity, but it’s also an unmanageable sprawl.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Mondo bizarro. No offence man, but you’re in way over your head.

The X-Files 8.7: Via Negativa I wasn’t as down on the last couple of seasons of The X-Files as most seemed to be. For me, the mythology arc walked off a cliff somewhere around the first movie, with only the occasional glimmer of something worthwhile after that. So the fact that the show was tripping over itself with super soldiers and Mulder’s abduction/his and Scully’s baby (although we all now know it wasn’t, sheesh ), anything to stretch itself beyond breaking point in the vain hope viewers would carry on dangling, didn’t really make much odds. Of course, it finally snapped with the wretched main arc when the show returned, although the writing was truly on the wall with Season 9 finale The Truth . For the most part, though, I found 8 and 9 more watchable than, say 5 or 7. They came up with their fair share of engaging standalones, one of which I remembered to be Via Negativa .

Isn’t it true, it’s easier to be a holy man on the top of a mountain?

The Razor’s Edge (1984) (SPOILERS) I’d hadn’t so much a hankering as an idle interest in finally getting round to seeing Bill Murray’s passion project. Partly because it seemed like such an odd fit. And partly because passion isn’t something you tend to associate with any Murray movie project, involving as it usually does laidback deadpan. Murray, at nigh-on peak fame – only cemented by the movie he agreed to make to make this movie – embarks on a serious-acting-chops dramatic project, an adaptation of W Somerset Maugham’s story of one man’s journey of spiritual self-discovery. It should at least be interesting, shouldn’t it? A real curio? Alas, not. The Razor’s Edge is desperately turgid.

Schnell, you stinkers! Come on, raus!

Private’s Progress (1956) (SPOILERS) Truth be told, there’s good reason sequel I’m Alright Jack reaps the raves – it is, after all, razor sharp and entirely focussed in its satire – but Private’s Progress is no slouch either. In some respects, it makes for an easy bedfellow with such wartime larks as Norman Wisdom’s The Square Peg (one of the slapstick funny man’s better vehicles). But it’s also, typically of the Boulting Brothers’ unsentimental disposition, utterly remorseless in rebuffing any notions of romantic wartime heroism, nobility and fighting the good fight. Everyone in the British Army is entirely cynical, or terrified, or an idiot.

It’s not as if she were a… maniac, a raving thing.

Psycho (1960) (SPOILERS) One of cinema’s most feted and most studied texts, and for good reason. Even if the worthier and more literate psycho movie of that year is Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom . One effectively ended a prolific director’s career and the other made its maker more in demand than ever, even if he too would discover he had peaked with his populist fear flick. Pretty much all the criticism and praise of Psycho is entirely valid. It remains a marvellously effective low-budget shocker, one peppered with superb performances and masterful staging. It’s also fairly rudimentary in tone, character and psychology. But those negative elements remain irrelevant to its overall power.

You have done well to keep so much hair, when so many’s after it.

Jeremiah Johnson (1972) (SPOILERS) Hitherto, I was most familiar with Jeremiah Johnson in the form of a popular animated gif of beardy Robert Redford smiling and nodding in slow zoom close up (a moment that is every bit as cheesy in the film as it is in the gif). For whatever reason, I hadn’t mustered the enthusiasm to check out the 1970s’ The Revenant until now (well, beard-wise, at any rate). It’s easy to distinguish the different personalities at work in the movie. The John Milius one – the (mythic) man against the mythic landscape; the likeably accentuated, semi-poetic dialogue – versus the more naturalistic approach favoured by director Sydney Pollack and star Redford. The fusion of the two makes for a very watchable, if undeniably languorous picture. It was evidently an influence on Dances with Wolves in some respects, although that Best Picture Oscar winner is at greater pains to summon a more sensitive portrayal of Native Americans (and thus, perversely, at times a more patr

My Doggett would have called that crazy.

The X-Files 9.4: 4-D I get the impression no one much liked Agent Monica Reyes (Annabeth Gish), but I felt, for all the sub-Counsellor Troi, empath twiddling that dogged her characterisation, she was a mostly positive addition to the series’ last two years (of its main run). Undoubtedly, pairing her with Doggett, in anticipation of Gillian Anderson exiting just as David Duchovny had – you rewatch these seasons and you wonder where her head was at in hanging on – made for aggressively facile gender-swapped conflict positions on any given assignment. And generally, I’d have been more interested in seeing how two individuals sympathetic to the cause – her and Mulder – might have got on. Nevertheless, in an episode like 4-D you get her character, and Doggett’s, at probably their best mutual showing.

You’re a disgrace, sir... Weren’t you at Harrow?

Our Man in Marrakesh aka Bang! Bang! You’re Dead (1966) (SPOILERS) I hadn’t seen this one in more than three decades, and I had in mind that it was a decent spy spoof, well populated with a selection of stalwart British character actors in supporting roles. Well, I had the last bit right. I wasn’t aware this came from the stable of producer Harry Alan Towers, less still of his pedigree, or lack thereof, as a sort of British Roger Corman (he tried his hand at Star Wars with The Shape of Things to Come and Conan the Barbarian with Gor , for example). More legitimately, if you wish to call it that, he was responsible for the Christopher Lee Fu Manchu flicks. Our Man in Marrakesh – riffing overtly on Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana in title – seems to have in mind the then popular spy genre and its burgeoning spoofs, but it’s unsure which it is; too lightweight to work as a thriller and too light on laughs to elicit a chuckle.

The best thing in the world for the inside of a man or a woman is the outside of a horse.

Marnie (1964) (SPOILERS) Hitch in a creative ditch. If you’ve read my Vertigo review, you’ll know I admired rather than really liked the picture many fete as his greatest work. Marnie is, in many ways, a redux, in the way De Palma kept repeating himself in the early 80s only significantly less delirious and… well, compelling. While Marnie succeeds in commanding the attention fitfully, it’s usually for the wrong reasons. And Hitch, digging his heels in as he strives to fashion a star against public disinterest – he failed to persuade Grace Kelly out of retirement for Marnie Rutland – comes entirely adrift with his leads.

I tell you, it saw me! The hanged man’s asphyx saw me!

The Asphyx (1972) (SPOILERS) There was such a welter of British horror from the mid 60s to mid 70s, even leaving aside the Hammers and Amicuses, that it’s easy to lose track of them in the shuffle. This one, the sole directorial effort of Peter Newbrook (a cameraman for David Lean, then a cinematographer), has a strong premise and a decent cast, but it stumbles somewhat when it comes to taking that premise any place interesting. On the plus side, it largely eschews the grue. On the minus, directing clearly wasn’t Newbrook’s forte, and even aided by industry stalwart cinematographer Freddie Young (also a go-to for Lean), The Aspyhx is stylistically rather flat.

I don't like the way Teddy Roosevelt is looking at me.

North by Northwest (1959) (SPOILERS) North by Northwest gets a lot of attention as a progenitor of the Bond formula, but that’s giving it far too little credit. Really, it’s the first modern blockbuster, paving the way for hundreds of slipshod, loosely plotted action movies built around set pieces rather than expertly devised narratives. That it delivers, and delivers so effortlessly, is a testament to Hitchcock, to writer Ernest Lehmann, and to a cast who make the entire implausible exercise such a delight.