War Dogs (2016).
Director: Todd Phillips (The Hangover Trilogy, Due Date, Road Trip).
Starring: Jonah Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street, 21 Jump Street), Miles Teller (Fantastic Four, Whiplash), Ana de Armas (Knock Knock), Bradley Cooper (American Hustle).
War Dogs is an insane ride into the insight of two gun runners and their pursuit for money. Shades of the Hangover trilogy loom over the film, which is expected since the films come from the same director Todd Phillips. But War Dogs hits more dramatic beats than I originally expected, and to its credit, actually makes you care about the characters, even if only for a few minutes.
The film takes its cues from a variety of similar movies, such as (but not limited to) The Wolf of Wall Street, Goodfellas, and of course Lord of War, but never manages to best any of them. Despite that, lead actors Jonah Hill and Miles Teller will guide you through a story that’s full of style but offers little substance. And that’s alright.
I don’t think audiences need to be told through deep political and social commentary that war profiteering is morally wrong. War Dogs is based on a Rolling Stone article by Guy Lawson entitled ‘Arms and the Dudes‘, which revolves around a couple of youthful ‘entrepreneurs’, Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) and David Packouz (Miles Teller). The film follows these two after they run into each other years after school. David is working in Miami as a massage therapist, whereas Efraim is making thousands of dollars a month by completing low-end military contracts. Efraim offers David the chance to work with him, and David, who has just found out he has a baby on the way, agrees.
Hill and Teller are older than the people they are portraying. David is an ‘anti-war’ protester but becomes morally ambiguous toward the end of the film, where, from the start, will do anything for a quick buck. Hill, borrowing elements from the character he portrayed in Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, is psychotic. Not necessarily crazy, but he’s always quick to remedy a situation, whatever the cost. This drug-abusing, overweight, funny-laugh persona feels like one of Hill’s easiest characters, but it’s also one of his best.
Despite the awful attitudes that both these characters inhabit, you still end up rooting for them. At one point in the film, faced with a hard decision to make, David asks Efraim if what they’re about to do is illegal, to which Efraim responds “Well, it’s not illegal” (it probably was). It’s this attitude that allows the audience to still invest into their relationship with each other, and what these characters are trying to do. You want to see how far they can take it, and what they can get away with. David’s struggle between doing his job and trying to provide for his wife, Iz (Ana de Armas), allows him to pull off a little more range than Hill, but his character is rarely developed, and instead your attention goes to Hill’s character and his intoxicating laugh.
Phillips provides a deeper experience than we’ve seen from his Hangover trilogy. As a director and entertainer, he’s done more than enough work here. Despite aiming for the stars and landing on the moon, it’s still a credible distance from his earlier work. A Scorsese imitation is still a good imitation. Phillips calls in his big gun Bradley Cooper to play Henry Girard, some sort of gun running gangster that can no longer do business with America directly. Here Cooper attempts to play it really easy, almost attempting some sort of Matthew McConaughey impression (again, with the imitations of The Wolf of Wall Street). Instead, Cooper feels unused, unneeded and underwhelming.
Underwhelming also describes Phillips’ attempts at anything outside the comedy in the film, as soon as he dips his toe in the waters of something truly sociopolitical, something truly worthy of providing commentary on, he turns around, wraps himself in a towel and drives back home. But as mentioned earlier, I think that’s okay. I’d rather he scratch the surface of the atmosphere and consequences of war profiteering instead of fully attempting it and having a half-cocked film.
Freeze frames, chapter titles and rock and roll galore, Phillips proves that he’s taken a step forward and can handle more mature stories, even if the template does feel like a hand-me-down. An almost two-hour film that’s only real message is “lying is bad”, War Dogs provides more than enough laughs, entertainment and heart for your average summer movie.
Feature image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.