John Michael McDonagh’s War on Everyone seeks to parody the hypocrisy of the interracial buddy-cop thriller, pointedly and smugly exacerbating the callousness inherent in films concerning police who do whatever they please under the pretense of serving the public. The two law enforcers at the center of this film have no illusions about their role in society, as they’re proudly cynical and corrupt alphas who’re out to satiate their own hungers. Bob Bolaño (Michael Peña) is the brains of the duo, constantly dropping a variety of historical and pop-cultural quotations so as to remind the audience of McDonagh’s overbearing cleverness as a screenwriter. Meanwhile, Terry Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård) is the brute, an often monosyllabic alcoholic given to bursts of violence, with an unexpected propensity for Glen Campbell’s music because McDonagh presumably thought it would be cute.
Like most comedic action thrillers, War on Everyone is in love with the tropes it ridicules, and it doesn’t take long for that love to dwarf any possibility of critique or even parody. The jokes are McDonagh’s way of laundering clichés, of attempting to reinvigorate them by openly owning up to their staleness. Every scene traditional of 1980s- and 1990s-era American action thrillers is accounted for here, and they’re played with a hint of sarcasm, though we’re also meant to actively enjoy them. When Bolaño and Monroe’s boss, Lt. Stanton (Paul Reiser), calls them into his office to read them the riot act for their latest adventure in casual fascism, we’re invited to pat ourselves on the back for recognizing the shopworn qualities of the scene while laughing along with the studiously racist backslapping. McDonagh invites the audience to turn its political sensors off in the name of ostensible subversion, telling us that we can be simultaneously progressive and regressive.
The film isn’t without its moments, which usually involve quicksilver inflections and gestures on the part of the excellent cast. Peña has a hilarious scene in which Bolaño is about to question someone inside a strip club and, failing to find his badge, holds up his hand in a resignedly entitled pantomime. Skarsgård sporadically achieves pathos despite the film’s archness, informing Monroe’s loneliness and desperation with grace and subtlety, particularly in the haunting Nowheresville accent he adopts. As the big bad, Theo James has a commanding, contemptuous virility that’s reminiscent of a young Sean Connery. As a villainous whipping boy, Caleb Landry Jones poetically rasps his lines, suggesting a Lou Reed who’s gone especially to seed. But these actors might as well be performing in isolated echo chambers, as the film doesn’t add up to anything.
The only idea tying the various throwaway bits together is McDonagh’s assertion that cops can be as mercenary as criminals, and he doesn’t even exhibit the courage of that obvious conviction. When War on Everyone needs to pivot toward its requisite shoot-out climax, McDonagh resorts to a pitiful child-abuse scene that serves to render Bolaño and Monroe sweethearts in comparison to the gang they’re battling, so that we can root for them to kill with a clear, un-ironic conscience that’s entirely at odds with the show-offy irony that’s been smothering the film up to this point. McDonagh’s failure isn’t of morality, but of nerve. For all his effort, he merely applies an extra varnish of self-consciousness to the usual kill-or-be-killed claptrap.