Oh, the Nineties. I wore some outrageous outfits, ingested copious amounts of recreational pharmaceuticals, and watched a ton of movies. There were a lot of edgy, post-Tarantino flicks that glorified drugs, nihilism, and violence and also managed to be funny and sexy. The Way of the Gun, Out of Sight, and Two Days in the Valley sprung immediately to mind while watching War on Everyone. With characters that spew quotes from philosophers as often as they curse, consume too many illicit substances, and chase bad guys in a 70s Monte Carlo while listening to Glen Campbell, I felt like I was back on my second-hand couch in my little Waverly Street apartment about to spark up a joint before settling in for a wild two-hour cinematic ride. Though like many things from the 90’s I’ve outgrown,War on Everyone is fun to revisit, but the nostalgia effect too often dips into self-indulgence.
Michael Pena and Alexander Skarsgard play crooked buddy cops Bob and Terry, and you deck them out in natty, three-piece suits. When we meet them, they are chasing down a mime. Bob asks dryly, “if you hit a mime, does it make a sound?” Terry provides the answer shortly after. This kind of pithiness sets the tone for a film that drifts back and forth from the ridiculous to the sublime, rarely managing to find the perfect balance between the two. But when it does, it is almost magical. Many of those moments aren’t delivered as drolly as the dialogue. They come courtesy of the art direction, and from your over-the-top costume choices.
Instead of real people, we mostly get actors in costumes, and what costumes they are. Shady informants, Reggie X and Padraic wear matching Reebok tracksuits while giving each other foot massages and ratting each other out. Evil Brit Lord Magnan, and his creepy henchman Russell are resplendent in colourful three-piece suits seemingly stolen from the Starsky & Hutch wardrobe archives. When Terry hits on hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold Jackie, he is in a white –t and cowboy hat, and she is in a skimpy majorette ensemble. What makes these costumes – and the film itself – pop are sets painted in vibrant, primary hues, decorated with mid-Century modern furniture and props, set against a desolate desert landscape. A post-coital scene sees Terry looking out the window at the city skyline. It is evocative and beautiful, but it feels mismatched beside talky scenes of Bob discussing Simone de Beauvoir, or lamenting Jennifer Lopez’ almost bare tits in Out of Sight.
In his previous films, The Guard and Calvary, writer/director John Michael McDonagh gave us heroes that blur the line between good and bad. Morally flawed characters are often the most interesting to follow, but they need to have heart. Terry is supposed to be the emotional center of this film, but like the rest of the characters, his traits seem manufactured merely for tragicomic effect.
The scenes that really work are the ones between Terry and Jackie. They have an electric chemistry that follows them from the bedroom to Terry’s minimalist manse, where they dance to Glen Campbell’s Rhinestone Cowboy, a song that I heretofore never considered the least bit sexy and likely never will again. Jackie is played by Tessa Thompson, who is quickly becoming one of my favourite young actors. Cringe-worthy scenes where she reads Susan Faludi poolside and Terry asks her if feminists can still wear hotpants and call themselves feminists wouldn’t have been salvageable in lesser hands. Like the rainbow spike heels she wears to go hiking with Terry and the young boy they accidentally adopt, she can pull off charmingly wacky without bordering on Manic Pixie Dreamgirl territory.
War on Everyone seems mainly to be at war with its place in time, unsure if it’s a 90’s comic-thriller throwback, or a 70s cop show, borrowing elements from both which start out fun, but eventually drain the viewer. Set in modern day, jokes about racist law enforcement, thinly veiled misogyny, and a dark subplot about child pornography clash as badly as floral and plaid. There were some genuine laugh out loud moments that, like my 90s turquoise snakeskin pants, which were so, so wrong and made me wish that they fit better with the rest of the outfit. And yet, despite these clashing elements and not because of them, I enjoyed this film far more than I like to admit.
Maybe it’s time to break those turquoise snakeskins out of retirement.
Or maybe not.