DIR: Todd Phillips • WRI: Stephen Chin, Todd Phillips, Jason Smilovic • PRO: Bradley Cooper, Mark Gordon, Todd Phillips • DOP: Lawrence Sher • ED: Jeff Groth • DES: Bill Brzeski • MUS: Cliff Martinez • CAST: Miles Teller, Jonah Hill, Ana de Armas
War Dogs is a movie that feels a little too pedestrian for its insane true-to-life subject matter. Whiplash’s Miles Teller plays David Packouz, a part-time masseuse and stoner, who is reunited with his old friend Efraim Diverioli (two-time Oscar-nominee Jonah Hill). Efraim’s business involves buying cheap guns and ammo and selling it to the American military during the Iraq war. The entrepreneur recruits David and the two manage to land the biggest weapons contract with the military of all time. Along the way, however, their morals get compromised and a rift begins to develop between them.
There is a lot to like about War Dogs. The cast is phenomenal. It’s scary how good Jonah Hill is at playing despicable, horrifying characters, delivering each offensive line with such commitment. Diverioli begins as essentially a slicker variation on Hill’s Wolf of Wall Street character. Yet as War Dogs continues, he becomes more like Leonardo Di Caprio’s Jordan Belfort – charming when needs be, but absolutely dead inside. The last scene between Hill and Teller is actually a little chilling, with Hill’s cold and sociopathic delivery. Although, his co-star is receiving the majority of the plaudits, Miles Teller is very good too. Hill’s performance is so big that he needed someone to counteract him by downplaying. Teller does just that but still impresses with his charismatic and likeable presence, as well as his confident narration.
I appreciate, also, how blackly-comic and bleak War Dogs is. Everyone in the movie (aside from maybe Kevin Pollak as Ephraim’s secret investor) is driven solely by money. Packouz and his wife, Iz (Ana de Armas), are established at the beginning as being against the Iraq war. Yet it only takes Ephraim to mention how it’s not about being “pro-war”, it’s about being “pro-money” to sway them. The Iraqi’s help the American’s, despite their feud, because they are bribed. The government only give responsibility to Ephraim and David because they financially low-balled their entire competition and the two fall out eventually over money. The film does pull its punches slightly, by not having its lead characters go full evil à la Mark Wahlberg in the similar in tone Pain & Gain, but it still deserves credit for creating a world where no one has any moral scruples.
However, there are some missteps. Todd Phillips (The Hangover, Old School) is not Martin Scorsese, despite how much he attempts to ape the style of the director. If David O. Russell gets an A on mimicking Scorsese and Adam McKay on The Big Short gets a B, Todd Phillips gets a C+ to B-. It’s not terrible. Phillips underscores his montages to rollicking classic songs and throws the camera round corridors and rooms, creating a sense of chaos and coolness serviceably. However, it’s the scenes between them which fall down, directed in a very point-and-shoot manner. Also, while Russell and McKay inject their own style into Scorsese’s formula, all Phillips does is insert slow-mo shots of people inhaling fumes out of bongs.
Also, as much as Meryl Streep can bemoan the lack of strong female characters in Scorsese’s filmography, at least Loraine Bracco in Goodfellas or Vera Farmiga in The Departed had more to do than Philips’ women. Ana de Armas is good but she is wasted in a dull, no personality wife role where her sole function is to nag David about lying. Every other woman who shows up is a stripper or prostitute. At the end of the film, a shadowy gun-runner played by Bradley Cooper states that he loves his business because of the lack of women, but even that feels like a cheap way to explain away fifty per-cent of the world’s population.
War Dogs is at times very good but its lack of originality holds it back from being truly great. As a result, what one is left with is a fascinating story and two charismatic lead turns that should be in a movie as good as they are.
15A (See IFCO for details)
War Dogs is released 26th August 2016