Buddy cop film War on Everyone has no edge – instead it’s smug, reactionary, and desperate

The writer-director John Michael McDonagh’s dark comedy isn’t half as clever as it thinks it is.

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It’s been a rum year for cinema so far, with comparatively few new films worthy of anyone’s time. But if our end-of-year “Best Of” lists will be looking threadbare, at least there is now a strong contender for the worst movie of 2016.

Beneath its thin veneer of hipness and cynicism, War on Everyone is smug, obnoxious, conventional and contemptible – a film with no redeeming features.

The writer-director John Michael McDonagh seems to cherish such adverse reactions to his movie. Possibly he sees it as proof that he’s ruffling feathers and rattling cages. He may regard himself as the Millwall of movies. Or the Vladimir Putin. Judging by the film’s erroneous belief that it is offering the sort of no-nonsense, politically incorrect commentary that others dare not utter, I’d say Nigel Farage is a more apt equivalent.

I hear that McDonagh personally approved the unorthodox use of a negative quote on the film’s advertising (“Aggressively facetious”– the Guardian). And let’s not forget that the title in the opening credits actually reads “John Michael McDonagh’s War on Everyone.” Heh, heh.

So who or what exactly is he waging war on? The most obvious candidate is politeness. The film’s dodgy Albuquerque detective duo, Bob Bolano (Michael Peña) and Terry Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), mow down suspects, crash cars while driving under the influence, snort coke with snitches and generally behave appallingly with complete impunity.

In an era of racist shootings by US police gaining greater publicity, surely there has been no better time for a satire on the tyranny of law enforcement. Except that this is no satire, and there is no criticism of Bob and Terry, either real or implied.

For all their law-breaking and brutality and disregard for due process, they get the job done: they never make mistakes and they always get the bad guys. (The superheroes in Captain America: Civil War are more convincingly flawed and human).

Their names tip us off immediately to the affection McDonagh feels for them: he’s christened them Bob and Terry after the main characters of the 1960s British sitcom The Likely Lads. He won’t have a word said against them.

Perhaps the movie wouldn’t be so objectionable if it didn’t pose as edgy, when it is, in fact, deeply reactionary. It’s the archetypal example of the film that isn’t half as clever as it thinks it is.

In the process of investigating a heist, Bob and Terry happen upon a camp, sadistic English villain and his flamboyantly gay henchman. Two macho detectives on the trail of a couple of queens – radical, right?

The movie tries to have fun with Seventies-style trimmings such as wah-wah funk-rock and gaudy colours but its politics are stuck irretrievably and unironically in the past too. When the villain turns out also to have a predilection for young boys, the viewer has to ask what exactly is being challenged here: a progressive society that no longer equates homosexuality with paedophilia?

It’s laughable how blatantly the movie tries to whip up our indignation without really giving two hoots about the suffering of the child in the film. When the kid plucks up the courage to admit that he has been assaulted, all Terry can say is: “Do you know their names?” Child abuse is invoked merely as a catalyst for violence and vigilantism. Nice.

But by this point in the movie, we have become accustomed to McDonagh using whatever it takes to get a laugh or a gasp or to make our blood boil. He’s a sensationalist posing as a stylist. He opens the film with the cops pursuing a mime artist, for no other reason than as the set-up for a lame gag (which has already been spoiled by the trailer).

He has Terry come into contact with two women in burqas simply so he can make a bad-taste jihad joke. Rather than seeming fearless and taboo-busting, the film just looks desperate – why else would it reduce these Muslim women to the status of walking feed-lines to make its white, male hero look witty?

Once you view War on Everyone as McDonagh’s application for the job of The New Shane Black, it starts to look rather touching and plaintive. But McDonagh isn’t the new Black. The old one is doing perfectly well as he is, as The Nice Guys proved recently. Black does this kind of irreverent genre shtick in his sleep – one line from his screenplays for The Long Kiss Goodnight or Kiss Kiss Bang Bang or The Nice Guys is laced with more mischief, wit and wisdom than anything McDonagh can concoct on his best day while wearing his snazziest writing hat.

In fact, the funniest thing about War on Everyone is how funny it thinks it is. “You ain’t got a good script, you ain’t got nothing,” says one character while watching TV. Ain’t that the truth.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.