Written and directed by John Michael McDonagh

Rated MA 15+, 97 minutes

Writers often say that first drafts are awful; then you get to work. In the case of John Michael McDonagh, the London Irish writer-director of The Guard, we know that he is capable of sublime dramatic writing, a dimension of human comedy that is committed, passionate and poetic. Calvary, in which Brendan Gleeson was a small-town Irish priest with a week to live, was my best film of 2014. 

War On Everyone would be a good shot for my worst of 2016, with a month to go. How does someone so gifted park his talent on something so misguided?  I am guessing one of two things: pots of money, or the kind of personal circumstances in which a director says, bugger it, it’s not ready but let’s make it anyway.

This is McDonagh’s first American-made film, although the money appears largely to come from Europe, including support from the British Film Institute. It feels very much like an early draft, or a project in need of a reality check. In other words, someone needed to tell this gifted writer-director that a buddy movie about corrupt cops in Albuquerque might not seem so funny in a year when Black Lives Matter; and that the shooting of unarmed African-Americans in the street by cops in various parts of America might shroud this project in a blanket of bad taste that not even a heavy-handed wink in that direction – the script acknowledges that blacks are killed more often than whites – could overcome.  Even Quentin Tarantino, who popularised this kind of hipper-than-thou dialogue and ultra violence, opted for the barricades last year, demonstrating against police killings.

McDonagh’s response to this crisis – and the film is in part his response – is to write a comedy about two very bad cops whose hearts are in the right place – assuming we could find those organs. It’s a very European kind of view: the idea that irony conquers all, legitimises all.

So the first scene has cop buddies Terry Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard) and Bob Bolano (Michael Pena) chasing a fugitive who’s dressed as a mime – white face and all – through the dusty back streets of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Bob wonders aloud whether, if you run down a mime, he will make a sound? Terry, who’s driving, answers the question. We know now that we are in an existential comedy – just not a very good one.  Callous jokes are no funnier than other types of humour simply because they are cruel. Only teenagers think that.

Bob and Terry are just back from a suspension. Paul Reiser, as their lieutenant, would like to think they have reformed, but knows it’s unlikely. Terry is a drunk in a three-piece suit, a good-looking wastrel with an air of desperation, inherited straight from Mel Gibson’s character in the original Lethal Weapon.  That makes Michael Pena the Danny Glover cover, the family man with an unruly mess of kids. He swears at them, lies to them, but they know he’s their champion. Outside the home, he’s a mean machine on the trail of a Mister Big – a British playboy criminal with a polished exterior, played by Theo James.

The support characters here are more interesting than the leads: Malcolm Barrett as minor snitch Reggie, who leads the cops on a dance across the oceans; David Wilmot as a gormless Irish criminal, way out of his depth; and especially Caleb Landry Jones as a baby-faced gay nightclub owner with a taste for blood.

I’m struggling to understand how McDonagh got the tone so wrong. His Irish-based films have worked so well on that level – quirky but not self-conscious, dramatic in funny ways, a deeper sense of purpose. He has tried to do the same thing here, but gives us no reason to care. The two cops are corrupt verging on psychotic; the villains only more so. Who cares if they blow each other away? 

Other critics have found this mess funny. I could only see the jokes in the distance, heading away. McDonagh may have been trying to establish his credentials as a film hard man, the kind of director who can deliver violence and jokes and the wafer-thin characters that action audiences like, but he’s way better than that.