Starring: Jonah Hill, Miles Teller, Bradley Cooper, Guns lots of Guns
Director: Todd Phillips
Running Time: 114 mins
Synopsis: Based on a true story, War Dogs tells of two 20 something guys who somehow wound up with a Government contract to sell arms for the Iraq war. In above their heads the two find themselves facing off against Albanian gangsters, renowned and dangerous arms dealers and each other.
Todd Phillips has always wanted to do drama. You can tell this from Hangover 2 onwards. Old School and the first Hangover were comedy gold but it felt like that was all he wanted to say, comedy wise. And yet he continued to make more. Due Date was forgettable and both Hangover follow ups seem to eschew laughs and focus more on character interplay inter-meshed with slight political leanings. The third Hangover featured almost zero laughs, and sadly the drama it featured instead was little better.
War Dogs, though, seems to be what Phillips was after all along. Dark laughs, a story with things to say (albeit superficial things), complex characters and colourful settings. Tackling the true story of two 20-odd guys, old friends from Junior High, who run into each other again and decide, as you do, to become international arms dealers. The scary thing is, it works. Steadily rising up to become power players with a massive government contract offering big pay-dirt. Our guide through all this is Miles Teller’s David Packouz. A likeable guy, with a go nowhere job but a stunning girlfriend (the radiant Ana De Armas), Teller brings a low key charming aura to the role and when things start falling apart you genuinely feel for a man who just wants to find something to reach for. Even if that thing happens to be international arms dealing.
Jonah Hill’s Efraim is the polar opposite. Once more tapping into the same energetic and sleazy vibe he brought so brilliantly to Wolf of Wall Street. Efraim’s impulsive choices, give no shit attitude and high pitched laugh takes him one step away from caricature, but he brings such life into proceedings and Hill manages to find the desperate sadness within a man so empty of worthy meaning in his life. Phillips doesn’t linger long on these things though. His mantra seems to be forward forward forward. The film is breathless, jumping from location to location and set back to set back with an adequate amount of verve and energy.
Hill isn’t the only part of Wolf of Wall Street that Phillips steals from. Throughout he attempts to hit similar beats. The dark side of the American Dream, the gradual rise of low key men into power positions, and the culpability of the people who let this happen. In Wolf it was the general public happy to let the banks run wild, and in this it’s the US government’s outsourcing of weapons contractors. The hedonistic aspects are also similar but by far more tame, a bit of weed and some strippers is about as far as it goes. However Phillips is no Scorsese. He doesn’t bring nowhere near the same directorial eye and sheer energetic passion that the much older director did for Wolf. Curiously Phillips also attempts a Tarantino flourish with odd chapter titles that do nothing but repeat lines of dialogue and bear no real meaning to the overall structure of the proceeding acts.
War Dogs does have just enough momentum and enjoyment though to keep you hooked. It helps to have a central twosome that have a terrific chemistry, with an added boost in an uncredited Bradley Cooper as a brilliantly spectacled arms dealer. Cooper’s line “That’s why I’m an arms dealer, no women” says more original perceptive and interesting things about the gun fixation than the entire film musters. I have a feeling I’ll have forgotten a lot of it come the morning but in the moment I was entertained and it gives me hope that Phillips has a potentially great drama film in him. Let’s just hope it isn’t wrapped up in a comedy sequel or a familiar tale of drug taking hucksters making it big.
Synopsis: A familiar story given much needed heft from two great central performances. You won’t see anything new but you will be entertained.