Imagine if Quentin Tarantino directed Starsky and Hutch and didn’t mess it up with his whole malignant misanthropic, misogynistic look-at-me thing. The result would be John Michael McDonagh’s snort-milk-out-your-nose-funny buddy cop comedy War on Everyone, premiering at the 66th Berlin Film Festival. Michael Peña and Alexander Skarsgard play Bob and Terry, co-dependent corrupt Albuquerque pigs snorting and shooting their way to tumble a supercilious English Lord (Divergent’s posh Theo James) into horseracing, heists, and kiddy porn.
McDonagh (The Guard, Calvary), like his brother Martin (In Bruges), has a virtuosic way with dialogue, interlacing philosophical musings with ridiculous questions like “if you hit a mime does he make a sound?” One of the movie’s greatest pleasures is that it gives Peña, an actor often forced by Hollywood to play roles beneath his skill set (exception: his cop bromance End of Watch, opposite Jake Gyllenhaal), long riffs of dialogue that he spins out like a Howard Hawks cockeyed hero. Finally, he gets to play the smartest guy in the room, not the Hispanic sidekick.
And then there’s Skarsgard, pausing in that career moment before he goes full on studio Tarzan. No one can fault a critic for pausing to salivate over the True Blood star, as he rolls out of bed with his new squeeze (the alluring Tessa Thompson), sweat slicked and gorgeous, in nothing more than a tiny pair of mustard-colored briefs. Here is an actor who recently made a horny boy-man sleeping with an under-aged teen in The Diary of a Teenage Girl oddly appealing if not quite sympathetic. In War on Everyone, Skarsgard plays a bruised beauty with a tarnished badge. Terry’s life plays out to a soundtrack of Glen Campbell songs, underscoring the achy twangy yearning white boy at his core. Terry’s hard-drinking, hard-punching policeman is a Rhinestone Cowboy, a Wichita Lineman. It’s a rueful comedic performance that he pounds out like pavement into something deeper and darker and more touching than your average buddy cop.
The opening sequences of War on Everyone are so furiously fast and funny it’s nearly unimaginable that McDonagh can sustain the pace. And yet he does. When the script eases up on the rapid-fire quips, seguing into hilarious music cues (all that Campbell!) and slapstick violence, it brings its best game. Because these flawed but funny characters have dimension, depth, deep desires and, damn it, cry out for a franchise.