A panicked mime races through the back alleys of a sun-drenched New Mexico city. In hot pursuit are Detectives Bob Bolaño (Michael Peña) and Terry Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), the local police department’s resident philosophy-spouting ne’er-do-wells who dress like the Reservoir Dogs in a post-Justin Timberlake pop culture environment. They’re driving a muscle car of early 1970s vintage that screams “America,” and as they approach the makeup-bedecked perp, they ponder whether the mime will break character and scream out in pain if they hit him with the car. They do. He does. And so Bob and Terry prove that they are part of the not-always-proud tradition of Quentin Tarantino-inspired cinematic anti-heroes.

And that’s just the start.

War on Everyone, writer-director John Michael McDonagh’s third feature film, weaponizes inclusion to provoke, offend and, theoretically, make viewers question their relationship with stereotypes. Its cast is multicolored and contains characters who are gay and transgender, which is a better starting point than many films made today. It errs by taking stereotypes about the groups it features and doubling down on them.

Why, exactly? Is this supposed to be a subversive choice? Unfortunately, it’s unclear. Reggie X (Malcolm Barrett), a black convert to Islam who preaches about wishing to live a better life, still winds up an untrustworthy double-crosser. The trans woman Reggie loves exists merely to give Bob and Terry a reason to crack jokes about what it would mean to be gay in such a relationship, depending on surgical status. Caleb Landry Jones, as a gay henchman to the villainous British lord played by Theo James, prances and preens his way across the screen, delighting in the idea of sex in prison and dressing like a reject from a New York Dolls cover band. It’s like McDonagh sees a chance to subvert expectations about these people, but then he stops at the first draft of what that subversion would actually look like without ever getting to the point where he actually twists them on their head. But the “good guys,” Bob and Terry, are terrible as well, so maybe it’s all okay in the movie’s eyes?

Peña and Skarsgård, because of increased screen time, are slightly more nuanced than the movie’s other characters. But they’re still a drag as they try to play all the angles to enrich themselves via an international conspiracy involving Theo James’ British businessman, Lord James Mangan. It’s never clear whether they are totally crooked or if they merely have an unconventional way of serving and protecting the public — they waver on their motivation constantly.

Peña, who is almost always a joy, strains against a script that shoves jumbled philosophical ramblings into his mouth, including an extended use of the “prove this chair does not exist” parable. As Bob, Peña’s natural charisma holds the role together, and allows for some (mostly visual) jokes to land in satisfying and amusing ways, including a scene in which he wrestles his two sons. Unfortunately, too much of Bob is tied into his self-conscious hyper literacy, which detracts from Peña’s comic timing and his usual knack for nailing a concise joke.

Skarsgård has a stiffer, quieter, more rage-filled onscreen presence than Peña, a contrast that doesn’t quite work. Luckily, McDonagh tries to use this to his advantage, which creates some of War on Everyone’s finer visual moments. McDonagh and cinematographer Bobby Bukowski pull the camera back from the alcoholic Terry, a guy whose “heart isn’t in” with regard to his police work. At Terry’s large but mostly empty apartment in the desert hills, the camera sits a long way away, showing how isolated Terry is, how empty his life is.

It’s almost enough to make up for the Swedish Skarsgård’s inability to keep a handle on his American accent, which sounds at times like Johnny Depp as Hunter S. Thompson and at other times like a cowboy. But mostly he’s just stuck sounding like an alien with a vengeful streak that runs a mile wide. If McDonagh had tailored the role to better suit Skarsgård’s skillset (tall, handsome, striking appearance, like Eastwood at a modeling agency) rather than trying to make him witty, Terry could have been a more fully-formed character. Instead, the effect leaves one wishing Terry had been played by Thank You for Smoking-era Aaron Eckhart, who could have knocked this role out of the park.

McDonagh’s ideas about how to turn his film into a gonzo pleasure never bear fruit beyond their initial potentially good intentions. That conflict between intent and execution leaves the actors unsure of how to perform their roles, deadening who they are meant to be. The other shoe never drops with the attempts at subversion, leaving viewers to sit there and wait for a punchline that simply won’t come.

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