“Like I say, Bob, if it ain’t broke, break it.”
The Second night of the Toronto After Dark Film Festival started with a bang not a whimper as John Michael McDonagh’s War on Everyone had it’s Canadian premiere. Unlike most of the films on this year’s line up, War on Everyone lies somewhat less in the genre category as it’s an buddy cop action/comedy. But that’s not say it’s mainstream either. While using the frame work of a traditional Hollywood movie, this film plays with usual character dynamics and plot to bring us something that is far more. While extremely funny and full of a number of “shoot-em-up” action sequences, the viewer is left with a piece that is not so easily defined.
War on Everyone focuses on Bob and Terry (Michael Pena and Alexander Skarsgard), two crooked New Mexico cops that love to abuse their authority. While they do have their hands in drugs, corruption, brutality and bribery, they tend to steer clear of major offenses (murder and the like). They’re not what you would call “good guys” and each has obvious issues they have to deal with. Terry suffers from a self destructive personality and is willing to try almost anything once. It seems that the only true constant in his life is his love of Glen Campbell. Bob, a family man, is dealing with balancing work with home life. Aside from the occasional complaint from their commanding officer (played by Paul Riser), they pretty much get away with whatever they want. That is until a simple stakeout of a few “persons of interest” leads to an investigation that puts both men at serious risk. When you mess with the wrong criminal, they tend to make it personal.
What’s so amazing about War on Everyone is its unwillingness to be categorized into one specific box. At the start of the film, the characters are introduced in a very cynical light, with few redeeming qualities. Its a set up that makes the viewer believe they are going to be watching a satirical send up of cops. But as the story unfolds, we get to see new sides of both Terry and Bob (especially Terry) that make us question our initial impressions. Instead of a story full of bad guys where you’re rooting for the lesser of evils, the film decides to show that these cops are actual shades of grey with a strange moral compass that makes what once looked like lost souls turn into true heroes. But at no point is there a feeling of betrayal. The satirical dissection of the characters and their world is still there (especially in a few bits of dialogue involving a second act investigation of a police shoot out) but it is paired with moments of pure joy.
After watching the trailer of this film, no person in their right mind would believe that there would be any sweetness or beauty to it, but somehow McDonagh finds a way to work it in. The middle of the film features a dance sequence to the song Rhinestone Cowboy that could easily have looked out of place, yet the strength of the characters and the storytelling allows the viewer to become invested in this beautiful moment. This isn’t by accident as there’s a true balance throughout the film between blood and beauty. Seconds after Terry is given the worst beating of his life, he’s playfully befriended by a dog who lovingly licks his face. It’s this juxtaposition that makes the film more than the sum of its parts. We’re presented with satirical situations that are augmented by “real” characters that we can see the good in…..no matter how buried.
The performances from Pena and Skarsgard are very strong, albeit a little uneven. Skarsgard gets more screen time and a more interesting character arc to work with. However, Pena’s comic timing is stronger in the scenes they’re together. Regardless, the pair have great chemistry and it would be great to see these two guys work together again on a similar project.
Adding to this, the duo are backed up by some fantastic supporting players. Tessa Thompson plays Jackie Hollis, a cool and collected former exotic dancer who begins a relationship with Terry after a chance encounter. The subtly of her performance is mesmerizing as with just a look or throwaway line, you’re wondering what kind of rough life she’s lead. Her emotions and reactions seem authentic but still have just a touch of finesse making a character that might’ve had no effect on the film feel like a vital component. Paul Riser is fantastically effective as Lt. Gerry Stanton, a cop that just wants his two wacko detectives to stay in line. He’s not painted in a particularly good light, but not a bad one, either. He rides the line of being a cliche commanding officer and stooge who’s trying to mask his own prejudices. He also gets some pretty funny jokes that put the button on most of the scenes he’s in. There are also memorable contributions from both Malcolm Barrett and David Wilmot, each having much bigger roles than one might guess.
The only place where this film is lacking is in its villain. Like a number of cop comedies that have come before it, War on Everyone presents a villain that attempt to be more interesting than menacing, thus making him an unbelievable threat for our heroes. At no point did I feel that the “big bad” of the film (Theo James as Lord James Mangan) had the upper hand. There were times where he would plot and plan and attempt to “send a message” to Terry and Bob, but without any real commitment. While the performance wasn’t bad, the writing was on the wall from the beginning on who the victor would be. Thankfully, the fantastic character work by the rest of the cast and choices in storytelling overshadow this weak spot.
I cannot recommend War on Everyone highly enough to those who enjoy a cheeky action film. Tons of laughs and a few tender moments make this film a must watch, especially for fans of Pena and Skarsgard. There’s no news yet on when the film will get a North American release, so stay tuned for more info.
If you’re gonna geek out, GEEK HARD!