War Dogs is a story of government corruption, arms dealing, worldwide criminal activity, war profiteering, and the testing of tenuous relationships through it all.
And who better to bring that story to you than the director of The Hangover?
I can think of a lot of directors, actually, who could more skillfully handle such a titillating true story. This is a representation of American evil that would best be handled by Martin Scorsese, or perhaps Oliver Stone. But Todd Phillips — a virtuoso of the lowest common humor denominator?
Somewhat miraculously, Phillips pulls War Dogs off. It oscillates too indecisively between tones to amount to anything important, but its clear message and chemistry add surprising value.
War Dogs is based on Guy Lawson’s book Arms and the Dudes (a more fitting title for Phillips’ movie), which in turn is based on Guy Lawson’s Rolling Stone article about the unbelievable actual events. All three accounts center on David Packouz and Efraim Diveroli — portrayed here by Miles Teller and Jonah Hill, respectively — two men who quickly rose (or fell?) from middle school shenanigans to supplying arms for America’s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.
From the opening monologue, War Dogs’ screenplay wants to make one thing very clear: the filmmakers are not fans of the Bush/Cheney era. Todd Phillips’ movies usually don’t bother trying to make any kind of point, but this film eagerly indicts conservative America’s obsessions with money and war. Its eagerness never betrays its successful criticism method: telling it like it is, no matter how blatantly.
Jonah Hill and Miles Teller certainly have fun participating in such a condemnation. The two don’t just have chemistry as friends since childhood: they have unruly chemistry as bros. Whether conducting business or testing gigantic guns in Albania, Hill and Teller strike an image that perfectly captures the American bro: jovial but petulant. War Dogs wisely doesn’t paint David and Efraim as good men, but it’s not afraid to play their antics up for humor’s sake (Jonah Hill’s in-character laugh is enough to classify the movie as a comedy).
This does evolve into War Dogs’ tone problem though. The film has an undeniable strain of Hangover DNA: at too many times when the narrative of globetrotting greed demands a weighty approach, Phillips prefers to lighten the mood with limply offensive dialogue or by explaining intricate political matters with a The Big Short-esque breeziness. As a result, it never sinks its tonal teeth into the moral reprehensibility of the events it’s relaying.
One second we’re drawn in by the exciting nature of the source material, the next we’re watching David and Efraim smoke weed with night vision goggles on. This problem fades as the duo starts meddling in big time crime, but Phillips never fully commits to the gritty vibe with which he plays around. Wars Dogs doesn’t leave a mark.
Two more things the movie has in common with The Hangover: primary female characters are more set dressing than actual people, and we’re not sure why Bradley Cooper is there.
War Dogs is the cinematic equivalent of a stoner’s explanation as to why “the Iraq War was about the money, man”, but it has its facts straight and its actors great.
★★★ (3 out of 5)