Wars Dogs is a solid movie, but only partly succeeds at blending Todd Phillips’ brand of bro-comedy with social/political commentary.
War Dogs is told from the perspective of David Packouz (played by Miles Teller). David, in 2005, is a 20-something year old Miami Beach resident who spends his days working as a massage therapist and (unsuccessfully) attempting to sell high-quality bedsheets to Florida state’s many retirement homes. Everything then changes for David when he reunites with his old friend, Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill): a swaggering party dude, firearms expert and founder of AEY Inc., the one-man business through which Efraim operates – taking advantage of a loophole that allows any company (however small it may be) to bid on U.S. military contracts.
David, determined and under-pressure to change his financial prospects after his significant other, Iz (Ana de Armas) brings him life-changing news, agrees to work with Efraim at AEY. Before long, David and Efraim find themselves embracing a “Get Rich or Die Trying” philosophy that – shockingly – pays off huge, landing them even more contracts, rapidly growing their business and leading to the sort of major upgrade in lifestyle that David never imagined possible. However, when the duo pursue a U.S. military contract that is worth hundreds of millions of dollars, these unlikely “War Dogs” find themselves in danger of finally growing too big for their britches.
Based on Guy Lawson’s Rolling Stone article “The Stoner Arms Dealers: How Two American Kids Became Big-Time Weapons Traders” (which was later turned into the book Arms and the Dudes, by Lawson), War Dogs is a change of pace for director Todd Phillips – in the sense that it uses a hard-to-believe, real-life, story to make a greater statement about the world and, in particular, the U.S. today (see Pain & Gain for a comparable example). At the same time, War Dogs has many of the same elements as Phillips’ past R-Rated comedies, such as Old School and The Hangover trilogy. Wars Dogs is a solid movie, but only partly succeeds at blending Todd Phillips’ brand of bro-comedy with social/political commentary.
War Dogs very much emulates Martin Scorsese movies such as The Wolf of Wall Street and Goodfellas in its design – from having its protagonist’s voice-over narration serve as a framing device for the overarching story, to using 1960s and ’70 tunes (for example, “Fortunate Son”) as catchy soundtrack music that serves a thematic purpose. War Dogs, similar to Scorsese’s movies, also brings the story of David Packouz and Efraim Diveroli’s rise to infamy to life as an energetic R-Rated piece of entertainment, while at the same time spinning that story as a cautionary tale and a parable about the dark side of the American Dream. All the comparisons to Scorsese aside though, it’s War Dogs’ difficulties with its own balancing act between these two types of storytelling that prevent it from flying higher – as it ultimately plays things too “safe” for its own good.
Part of the problem is that the War Dogs script – credited to Phillips, Stephen Chin (Another Day in Paradise) and Jason Smilovic (Lucky Number Slevin) – is itself a mixed bag. On the one hand, the script serves up a series of (often darkly) funny buddy comedy scenarios and situations – yet the overarching narrative that ties them together follows a very clear-cut and predictable trajectory, especially for a bizarre real-life tale about a pair of “Stoner Arms Dealers.” Moreover, War Dogs makes for a perfunctory social critique – as it hits many of the same points about wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (being an economic force) as those raised in movies like Lord of War, over ten years ago. The stabs at absurd political comedy and satire do hit their targets here – but they are less impactful than intended, for related reasons.
Phillips and director of photography Lawrence Sher create effective visual juxtapositions between the film’s various settings (ranging from bright and wealthy areas of Miami Beach to dismal and dilapidated regions in Albania), as well as sight gags and clever motifs (see the use of comical freeze frames during Teller’s exposition dumps) that present the film’s familiar plot and commentary in a funnier and more cinematically engaging way. To be clear: War Dogs is not as dramatic or innovative a step away from the look and feel of Phillips’ previous mainstream Hollywood comedies as, say, Adam McKay’s The Big Short was from his past filmography, last year. Nonetheless, this film is still a step up in quality from Phillips and Sher’s work together on the Hangover trilogy (as well as Phillips’ other directorial efforts), just from a technical perspective.
Unfortunately, Miles Teller is saddled with a character (David Packouz) who simply isn’t well-developed. War Dogs, in turn, paints a muddled portrait of David from the get-go, making his arc in the movie less engaging as a result. On the other hand, Packouz’s flat portrayal leaves room for Jonah Hill (who has good chemistry with Teller) to continue to make his name as a character actor with a scene-stealing turn as Efraim Diveroli – who, as seen through David’s eyes, is an unrepentant sleaze ball (with a great laugh) whose surface masks his darker nature. War Dogs is Teller and Hill’s show, so supporting players like Ana de Armas (Knock Knock) – cast as the stock girlfriend type here – are spectators more than anything else. Still, Phillips’ Hangover trilogy star, Bradley Cooper, leaves a lasting impression with his (brief but important) appearances as the infamous, yet off-beat, weapons dealer Henry Girard.
When all is said and done, War Dogs is an entertaining bro-comedy – but its attempts to portray the “Stoner Arms Dealers” as a microcosm for America produce uneven results. It’s a more ambitious comedy/drama than what director Todd Phillips’ has made in the past, but proves to be hit-and-miss at actually realizing those ambitions. For these reasons, War Dogs is closer to Pain & Gain in quality than Wolf of Wall Street – and so long as moviegoers go in expecting as much, War Dogs should deliver the engaging stranger-than-fiction experience that they came to see.
War Dogs is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 114 minutes long and is Rated R for language throughout, drug use and some sexual references.
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