American police aren’t very popular at the moment. But you wouldn’t know that from movies and TV. Protests against police brutality are happening on the reg, but cops are still blindly shown as heroes in popular fiction. The NYPD is portrayed as a fun, wacky workplace in Brooklyn Nine Nine. Ice Cube used to say “Fuck Tha Police,” but now he plays lovable cops in Ride Along and 21 Jump Street. Lethal Weapon and Rush Hour have both had TV spin-offs this year. Popular media should reflect what’s going on in the real world, and regardless of where your politics lie, it doesn’t seem right in the era of things like Black Lives Matter that we still accept screen cops with even a hint of questioning.
Which is what makes War On Everyone so important. It’s the version of Lethal Weapon we need in 2016. It’s the first American film from British-Irish writer-director John Michael McDonangh, who previously made the critically acclaimed Irish movies The Guard and Calvary (and is the brother of In Bruges director Martin McDonagh). On paper, it’s another buddy cop movie, with Michael Peña and Alexander Skarsgård as a duo of New Mexico police detectives of the trail of gang of armed robbers. Peña is the family man, Skarsgård is the womanising bachelor. There’s an angry police chief (Paul Reiser), a British bad guy (Theo James), and yes, a girl mixed up with the bad guys that Skarsgård ends up with (Tessa Thompson). Sounds pretty standard. In practice though? While Peña and Skarsgård are our protagonists, there is no ‘moral ambiguity’ about them — they are just straight up shitheads. They get high and drunk on the job, they frame, blackmail and assault suspects, they’re casually racists and they’re only tracking down the bad guys so they can steal their loot.
When films do cover police corruption, they are usually clearly flagged as tragic characters like Michael Chiklis inThe Shield or Denzel Washington in Training Day. War On Everyone however says that it’s not just the occasional battle-worn detective that’s rotten, it’s that the whole system is fucked (“Yeah, they’re racist! But it’s the police force, we’re surrounded by big fat racists!” says the Paul Reiser’s cliched Angry Police Captain at one point). But at the same time, it feels like you’re watching Rush Hour or something — somehow it’s also an incredibly enjoyable straight buddy movie. When I spoke to him in London, McDonagh tells me the way it toes the line between traditional police-worshiping thriller and satire is very deliberate. “It’s meant to be a certain audience can watch the film, and it’s just a laugh out loud movie, but another audience can see that you’re making satirical points about American policing. I’m not trying to exclude either. The jokes are there for a reason.”
McDonagh’s previous two films were both set in small town Western Ireland, where his family is from. But in his first American movie, he seems to be drawing much more on the US as it portrayed on-screen than in real life. “When I wrote the script I wanted it to be a sort-of The French Connection, but then I got bored with that idea, so then I did a French Connection that goes screwball.” He says he avoided re-watching the iconic buddy cop movies of the 1980s, instead taking influence from weirder, pre-Lethal Weapon 1970s police films that feel particularly out of date. He name-checks obscurities like Freebie and the Bean, starring Alan Arkin and James Cann (“Arkin plays a Mexican, that you wouldn’t get away with now, plus the two cops kill a guy and get away with it.”); Hickey & Boggs, with Bill Cosby and Robert Culp (“They’re basically alcoholics, they drink throughout the whole movie”); and Busting, with Elliott Gould and Robert Blake.
Old or new though, he definitely doesn’t think we should be looking at cops as these idealised heroes, and worries about how movies and TV shows glorify bad policing. “You have things in cop shows where they do maverick things to get around the law, to try to bust some guy. And we as the audience are supposed to go: ‘That’s great, you’ve broken the law to nail somebody!’. But in reality, they should uphold the law. They shouldn’t be doing that! There’s that TV show set in Chicago, with Magnum PI and Mark Wahlberg’s brother (Tom Selleck and Donnie Wahlberg), Blue Bloods. And they’re basically fascists! And we’re meant to think they’re great people! But then who watches those cop shows? Maybe they’re only watched by white middle class people.”
McDonagh’s first film, The Guard, was the most successful independent Irish film of all time. It was also a buddy cop movie of sorts. Brendan Gleeson played a depressed small time cop who has to team up with Don Cheadle’s FBI agent following a murder involving international coke smuggling. It’s a bit like the first Lethal Weapon — a surprisingly dark, sombre film about a troubled cop. Whereas War On Everyone, going for the full satiric bite, is more like Lethal Weapon 3 or 4. It acts like we already know the characters, and reveals in all the cliches. War On Everyone even begins with a cold open of an unrelated case (involving an evil mime), then an opening titles montage like you’re watching an episode of a particularly crappy cop show that you’ve seen a million times before (In a particularly great touch, the opening credits song is MOP’s “Ante Up” — not just a great track, but one that starts with the iconic call of “Amadou!”, a shout-out to Amadou Diallo, who was shot and killed while unarmed by the NYPD — a fitting, subtle moment that McDonagh says is totally deliberate).
McDonagh agrees with this assessment. “I know what you mean. With the plot I was less interested in the plot, and more interested the laugh-out-loud comedy, having melancholic moments between the actors, and more actor-y things. The plot is there to just drive them along. I really want to make people laugh. The Guard is in a more recognisable reality, this is more surreal. This is meant to be more anarchic crime movie.” In truth, the plot of them movie is a bit all over the place. It starts out with Peña and Skarsgård investigating a planned heist on a racetrack, but kind of loses its focus — there’s a bizarre interlude in Iceland, and it ends with them taking on child abusers. But this shaggy dog narrative is kind of the point — they aren’t guys making the world a better place, or overcoming an obstacle, they’re just doing shit for the sake of it. At one point, Tessa Thompson asks why he became a cop, and he doesn’t have an answer (He eventually comes up with one attraction to the job: “Well, you can shoot people for no reason and no-one can do a goddamn thing about it.” And this line is delivered while he’s having sex with an African-American girl).
The film seems very topical, but McDonagh says the original script was written a good few years ago, “probably before The Guard”, but it went through several changes before it got to the screen. “It was originally set in London, which never felt right to me. And then after The Guard was a success, I considered setting it in Dublin, but it didn’t work their either. There’s just something about loads of people getting guns out only really works in America, for better or worse!”. He points out that it’s not meant to be a realistic depiction — “No one is going to fly to New Mexico and meet anyone like this” — but it’s definitely strong take on where the USA is right now, from a British writer-director. “It’ll be interesting to see how it plays in America now,” McDonagh says. “It might be too much for people.”
War on Everyone is in cinemas 7 October.