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Corrupt cops Terry (Alexander Skarsgård) and Bob (Michael Peña) set out to blackmail and frame every criminal unfortunate enough to cross their path in New Mexico. Things take a sinister turn, however, when they try to intimidate someone who is more dangerous than they are. 

Terry and Bob, the highly unlikely lads
Terry and Bob, the highly unlikely lads

You can see what they were aiming for and, with the critical success of this years’ earlier The Nice Guys, another modern take on the buddy cop movie would have been welcome. But War on Everyone is so hit and miss, so thrown together, it misses at almost every turn. It starts well enough with our two cops Terry (Alexander Skarsgård) and Bob (Michael Peña) in hot pursuit of a suspect who just happens to be a mime. “I’ve always wondered… if you hit a mime, does he make a sound?” asks Terry just before finding out. It’s a funny, bold and original beginning but things go downhill pretty quickly after.

Terry enjoys a breakfast of beer with Bob's wife Delores (Stephanie Sigman)
Terry enjoys a breakfast of beer with Bob’s wife Delores (Stephanie Sigman)

It’s admirable to aim for the avant-garde and quirky and War on Everyone, shot through with a 70’s vibe so thick you could cut it, certainly shoots for a certain look and feel. But instead of succeeding, it comes off as simply having delusions of pretension. The plot isn’t really important, nor the point. What writer/director John Michael McDonagh wants is for you to sit up and take notice of all the little bits of high-brow dialogue he throws in for no reason, and marvel at the wonders of cinematography he showcases at various times; Terry getting drunk in a club whilst the background plays out in high speed and an extremely long reverse-angle tracking shot of the villain near the end do look nice, but have no place and stick out like a flashing Belisha beacon, removing you from the film entirely.

It would automatically get an extra star were it not for some woeful miscasting. Alexander Skarsgård can do mean and moody from the moment he wakes up (and probably in his sleep as well, if we’re honest) but a natural comedic actor he is not. With his permanently hunched shoulders and goofy expression, he looks like he wandered in from another movie. And there is zero chemistry between him and Peña.

Jackie (Tessa Thompson) tried to inject some enthusiasm into Terry
Jackie (Tessa Thompson) tried to inject some enthusiasm into Terry

Indeed it’s Peña who saves the film from being almost unwatchable. Quite the opposite from his co-star, Peña looks naturally funny whilst standing still, his myopic stare lending laughs to a script that really doesn’t deserve them. And whilst there are some amusing moments (best of all when in the midst of a cocaine binge the partners panic at the sound of sirens, before reminding themselves they’re cops as well), they are so far and fleeting as to almost not matter. Yes it all looks good, and the soundtrack is banging, but with villains so OTT and out of date it’s embarrassing, and two leads who are thoroughly unlikeable (and not in a good way), coming across as simply having watched Beverly Hills Cop on loop for a week, it’s hard to muster much enthusiasm.

Theo James as ridiculous bad guy Lord James Mangan
Theo James as ridiculous bad guy Lord James Mangan

Even Paul Reiser excelling as a clichéd, ball-breaking boss and an…interesting quick trip to Iceland can’t save things. McDonagh made quite the impression with both The Guard (2011) and Calvary (2014) and was one to watch but this is a big, black mark on his CV. It’s no surprise that in its first week it took under £200,000 at the UK box office. And Alexander Skarsgård’s agent should quietly bin any and all comedy offers that come his way.