The central action sequence in “War”—the one just after Soldier and Angel drive a spike through Trudy’s palm and just before Hap and Leonard sic a dog on Soldier—is Hap And Leonard at its best. They’re all in the kitchen when Howard intervenes on Trudy’s behalf, saying the only way to get her to talk is to hurt Hap. Which means not only is Howard ruthlessly offering up Hap’s body to the vicious killers, but he’s also come to the sad realization that Trudy’s love for Hap is stronger than whatever she feels for Howard. Every little action in this aborted set piece is packed like that, but the gist is Soldier has Howard swing a mallet at Hap’s face as hard as he can so that Trudy will eventually buckle to save him. Trudy’s nailed to the table. Leonard’s handcuffed to Hap. Angel and Paco have guns on them. And within that bear trap scenario, everyone shows their colors: Howard’s weak and swings, Trudy’s strong and stays silent, Leonard’s brave and grabs Howard’s swinging arm before it makes contact, all of them under the exact same threat of gun death. The action’s a terrifying thrill, and it tests these slippery idealists, revealing them to us. It’s like Soldier says: Pain, or the threat of pain, clears away everything inessential. And still Trudy and Leonard resist.

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The peacenik who swings the mallet is punished for his sins. After the commotion, Soldier and Angel suddenly tag-team a pillow and a bullet at Howard’s face. If “War” is a test of nonviolent principles, the lefties all ultimately fail. Trudy goes head-to-head with Paco in the most gratuitous (not that there’s anything wrong with that) scene. He bashes her head into the wall a few times, but she gets most of the really gruesome hits: driving her Jesus spike into his good eye, beating him with the cast iron skillet, turning the stove on with his face on it. It’s almost like Trudy finding deliverance in the tools of her oppression. If only she could have choked him on some spare change tips. The final shot of Paco is a close-up of his doubly mangled face on the ground as Angel and Soldier appear in the smoke behind him. Soldier reacts with a psychopath’s compassion. “Goddamn madman loved putting his head on fire.”

One conversation crystallizes the question of nonviolence. When Hap wants to rescue Trudy, Leonard thinks it’s suicide. Hap pleads “You’ve never run away from a goddamn fight in your life.” Leonard shouts, “This ain’t no goddamn fight. They gon’ kill us, or we gon’ kill them. This is war!” And the only resistance is to opt out. Or to stand strong in the face of it, as when Trudy offers her other hand to Soldier. Still, Hap and Leonard go back for Trudy and find Angel choking her through a window like a Romero zombie. So Hap fires a crossbow bolt through Angel’s neck. That’s a big moment for Hap, who was having a hard time with the idea of shooting alligators. None of the lefties get out completely pure. But there are degrees, and Howard’s a lot closer on the spectrum to Paco than Hap.

Still, “War” offers a lot of red meat to its audience. It’s an episode of gross-out gore both shown and suggested and sudden, violent shifts in the balance of power. It’s a kickass dimestore page-turner, and in keeping with the trashy form it cheats a little to deliver the knockout blows. First, as expected, Trudy moved the money, so it was awfully dumb of her not to use that as a shield before the dig. But the new contrivance has to do with Hap and Leonard’s escape. Just after the mallet incident, Hap claims to know where Trudy buried the money, because he saw dog shit on her shoes. James Purefoy plays it almost like he’s making it up on the spot, and the impromptu plot comes with some smaller advantages in addition to the main one, particularly that it splits up the bad guys, with Paco staying behind to keep an eye on Trudy, still nailed to the table at this point. Almost as soon as Hap opens the first kennel, Leonard gives the command for the dog to attack Soldier. It works beautifully, and the walk out there has given Trudy enough time to extricate herself quietly from the table and sneak up behind Paco. The problem is: What was Angel doing this whole time? On one side of the kennels are Hap and Leonard and the potentially vicious dogs and Soldier and “the money,” pretty much everything active in the scene. And on the other Angel the ruthless badass just has her gun pointed at the trees, monitoring the bird situation? How convenient that it gives the guys enough time to knock her out with a shovel.

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Otherwise “War” is a magnificent climax for Hap And Leonard, all hell breaking loose and all the characters finding their essential selves. But there’s one more test. After a quiet moment where Soldier tells Angel about the rabbits, Hap and Leonard and Trudy are holed up in the house with just one attacker left outside. The problem is Leonard’s taken a few bullets and can’t move very far, and Hap’s handcuffed to him. So Trudy has to go get the van. In the calm before the storm, Hap patches up her hand. She kisses him and says, “We get through this, I’ll never leave you again.” Maybe it’s what Soldier said about everything getting cleared away except our cores, but it sounds sincere to me. Then again, it’s easy to say something like that under those circumstances. Much harder to live up to that promise when there’s a gunman between them. And that’s the situation as “War” ends. Trudy gets to the van, Hap and Leonard get to the porch, and Soldier gets to the space directly between them. So Trudy drives off. Earlier Soldier asks a vital question: “Is she a true believer, or is she just doing this for herself?” Any other episode and I’d say the latter.

Stray observations

  • “War” is written by Nick Damici.
  • We get a fuller flashback to the night Hap’s father (presumably) died. Hap and his dad were on their way back from a blackface vaudeville routine when they saw the car on the side of the road and its black owner. Then the part we know: Hap, Sr. insults the man, then feels guilty and goes back to help. Finally, a third car comes careening down the road at them, apparently to leave Hap fatherless. So that’s an instance where going back to help someone doesn’t work out so well….
  • Soldier’s impressed with what an honest day’s work has earned for even a black man such as Leonard. “And bleeding heart liberals think there’s something wrong with this country?”
  • Leonard pays tribute to Chub in his own way. “Damn fool. Stickin’ his neck out for me.” The way Michael K. Williams spits those last two words fills the line with regret.
  • RIP Howard, Paco, and probably Angel.
  • Soldier: “I hate duplicity in men, no offense to you, Paco.”

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