Remember the Nineties? Specifically, that decade’s subgenre of films that proliferated during the A.T. (After Tarantino) era, the ones featuring retro-hip musical deep cuts and gallows-humor dialogue dotting horrific gunfights? Usually the antiheroes were criminals; in the case of writer-director John Michael McDonagh’s tart-tongued throwback, they’re police officers. And from the moment that Terry (Alexander Skarsgård) and Bob (Michael Peña) show up, chasing down a street performer – “Always wondered if you hit a mime, does he make a sound?” – you realize you’ve entered some sort of Lethal Weapon through the looking glass. Or rather, given the vintage muscle cars and funky opening-credits tune, a warped version of a Seventies TV cop show, complete with an informant character asking if he’s Huggy Bear. Tarantino used to talk about his aesthetic being informed by imagining old Starsky and Hutch episodes taken to their unfiltered extreme. Someone apparently took him literally.
War on Everyone‘s plot – what we’ll call the string of incidents loosely connecting the verbose banter and violence, for brevity’s sake – pits these two mavericks against a vaguely continental bad guy (Divergent‘s Theo James, locked in a battle with a Sean Connery impersonation and losing) planning a big score. They’re also up against his fey, pasty lackey (Caleb Landry Jones, fey and pasty), numerous other underworld types, their exasperated chief (Paul Reiser), Bob’s nagging Xbox-obsessed sons, the concepts of sobriety and propriety, the notion of due process, basic human decency … we’ll refer you to the film’s title. An orphaned kid is introduced to make Terry seem slightly more likable. Tessa Thompson’s retired stripper character shows up to do a suspiciously sexy majorette routine and model hot pants. At one point, the action switches from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Iceland. Eventually, people pull firearms en masses on each other. Yes, they are most certainly fired.
Mileage may vary depending on how fond you are of a Glen Campbell-heavy soundtrack and the chatty, chic nihilism that went out with the Clinton era. Still, if you crave the dodgy thrill of watching two degenerate detectives piss on Miranda rights, you could do a lot worse than spending 90 minutes huffing the fumes of this duo’s cracked chemistry. The idea of pairing Skarsgård and Peña for this kind of multiracial buddy-cop exercise is inspired; the former’s towering thin white drunk and the latter’s stocky Hispanic smart-ass complement each other nicely. And if you have a nostalgic itch for those pomo-pulp crime movies, you could not do better than having McDonagh at the wheel. Like the Irish-English filmmaker’s previous movies The Guard (2011) and Calvary (2016), his latest is fueled by a frenetic, foul-mouthed energy; like the work of his brother, award-winning playwright and fellow filmmaker Martin McDonagh (In Bruges), there’s a cheeky intellectualism behind all the profane tough-guy posturing. (John gives his sibling a cameo, in a Polaraid of Thompson’s exes. “He looks like a douchebag,” Skarsgård exclaims.)
The sub-QT patter and ammo-heavy stand-offs have been always been an integral part of both McDonaghs’ voices, and despite the Southwestern U.S. setting, it’s an inherent Gallic fatalism that sets War apart from legions of imitators. This is not just a superior knock-off but a literate refinement of a formula, one that the director can tweak enough to organically include sex, drugs and namedropping André Breton, Yukio Mishima, Simone de Beauvoir and Pythagoras. It’s also a lot of guys reveling in being misanthropic assholes and pulling guns on each other, with everybody involved getting high on their own bad-boy-behavior supply. To paraphrase the Clash song that ends the movie, these gentlemen flout the law, and the law lost. For some folks, such retrograde pleasures have lost their bloody-knuckled charm. If this is still your bag all these years later and you wish the 1990s had never ended, however, then everyone wins.