War Dogs (2016) / Drama-Comedy
MPAA Rated: R for language throughout, drug use and some sexual references
Running Time: 114 min.
Cast: Miles Teller, Jonah Hill, Ana de Armas, Bradley Cooper, Kevin Pollak, JB Blanc
Director: Todd Phillips
Screenplay: Stephen Chin, Todd Phillips, Jason Smilovic
Review published August 27, 2016
Loosely based on a true story chronicled in a 2011 "Rolling Stone" article and subsequent 2015 book ("Arms and the Dudes") by Guy Lawson, War Dogs follows two lifelong friends, struggling massage therapist and bedsheet salesman David Packouz (Teller, Allegiant) and two-bit wheeler and dealer Efraim Diveroli (Hill, Sausage Party), two down-and-out Miami stoners who are looking to find a way to make ends meet in a variety of schemes they hope will give them a leg up. They end up finding a bit of success as small-time dealers of armor, weapons and ammo for bid on a government-run auction site, where they make a nice sum of cash flying under the radar with contracts too small for the big dogs to care about. They build up a nice mini-business as AEY, and their success eventually leads to bigger and better chances at contracts, ultimately leading to a sizable one in the form of a contract to supply AK ammo to the Afghan army to the tune of $300 million. After connecting with a shifty big-time weapons dealer named Henry Girard (Cooper, Joy), they find that the bigger the contract, the more dangerous the game, especially when dealing with black-market suppliers in unstable countries.
Todd Phillips, director of wildly popular sophomoric comedies like Old School and the Hangover films, follows The Big Short director Adam McKay's lead by trying to push forward a semi-serious topical film about the greed of modern-day American business practices in War Dogs. If you've seen your share of true-life films about people getting sucked into the shady world of illegal business dealings, you know how the storyline is likely to go: the allure of the money sucks them in, eventually they get greedy enough to draw attention, and then it all becomes too unwieldy after that, eventually leading to a big fall.
Looking for other great directors for inspiration, it seems that Todd Phillips is inspired by Brian De Palma's Scarface in particular, including a handful of references (including the iconic poster), and the works of Martin Scorsese in its execution and form, particularly Goodfellas (especially in its use of character narration and freeze frames) and The Wolf of Wall Street, a dark comedy which also features Jonah Hill playing an immature cad in an Oscar-nominated role. Like Scorsese's best, War Dogs features plenty of tracking shots and visual verve, plus a non-stop array of classic hit songs on the soundtrack to punctuate the mood of each scene, though the selection used here feels entirely too spot-on, as if actually telling us exactly how to view each scene, rather than merely driving the pacing and vibe the way Scorsese does so beautifully in his own films.
There's an inherent watchability to War Dogs that makes it moderately interesting, even if it all feels like a film we've seen before, and better. Despite getting the style and tempo right from the other films that Phillips is drawing inspiration for, the reason why his film fails to coalesce into a movie worth recommending paying to see in a theater is that the characters aren't defined enough to truly care about, and their story doesn't seem particularly interesting in and of itself, or revelatory on the problems with today's war-for-profit ways of doing business ushered in by the likes of Dick Cheney and company, fostering the privatization of war that allowed corporations and even small-time players like those featured in War Dogs, a chance to make millions or billions off of global conflicts.
Unlike The Big Short, Goodfellas, or The Wolf of Wall Street, no Academy Award love is likely to come War Dogs' way, as it remains a middling effort throughout, feeling more like an exercise for Todd Phillips to try to prove that he can emulate a good director rather than to actually try to tell a compelling story in a uniquely stylish and appropriately dramatic way. It seems to be trying to be outrageous and audacious, but the subdued and relatively mundane nature of the story doesn't really fit in with that kind of mood of impudence. The story is merely about a couple of guys who find a way to game the system to make a lot of money, but there's not much in that to suggest the kind of scandalous and immoral recklessness as that which Jordan Belfort engages in with Wolf of Wall Street. Instead, drama revolves mostly around whether David is shading the truth from his girlfriend Iz (note: this character was invented for the film), or in the way that Efraim smooth-talks his way into deals with various characters who have to be pulled aboard in order to secure the contract. They smoke a little weed and go to strip clubs (where, curiously, no clothing comes off), but outside of this, there isn't much to write home about.
In real-life, these stoners merely sat behind computers or talked on their phones to secure all of their contracts, never setting foot in actual war zones to do any gun running activities. As such, this gangster movie without gangsters or a comedy of perversion and amorality without genuinely perverted, amoral people doesn't really work as a film given that Phillips tries so hard to convince us it's both.
©2016 Vince Leo