War Dogs, 2016.
Directed by Todd Phillips.
Starring Jonah Hill, Miles Teller, Ana de Armas, Bradley Cooper and Kevin Pollack.
During the Iraq War, two twenty-somethings living in Miami exploit the government’s initiative to allow small businesses to bid on US Military contracts.
The War Dogs prologue, narrated by Miles Teller, will stun audiences in the revelation that modern warfare is less concerned with patriotism, and in defeating the (nondescript) terrorists, but it’s all about money and private contracts. Well, I say ‘stun’ – really, it’s the film that thinks it will stun its audience with this little factoid (one that has been common knowledge for nearly a decade). This conservative shock tactic may startle those born circa 2000, but for its target audience they will roll their eyes, and mumble, “Yes, movie, we know! I’m sure you’re about ‘stun’ us more with the notion that the US government went to war with the Middle East for oil!”
Set during the height of the Iraq War, David Packouz (Miles Teller), a struggling masseuse-cum-travelling carpet salesman, meets childhood bestie Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), an Iraq arms dealer who exploits the little-known government initiative that allows small businesses to bid on private contracts on military arsenal – it’s in the archival visuals of Iraq soldiers military gear paraded as visual merchandisers, that accompanies the aforementioned prologue, that has some genuinely startling financial statistics. After the Packouz confines in Diveroli of his financial woes, and the arrival of a baby with girlfriend Iz (Ana de Armas), Diveroli offers him a job at his small firm i.e. it’ll be just him and Diveroli. Packouz initially rejects the offer (for tension, I guess) because he and Iz are anti-war. However, Diveroli proclaims he too is against the war, but he’s not, quote, “anti-money.” Soon enough, Packouz lies to Iz of his financial ventures with Diveroli, and the two become War Dogs – a once derogatory term for members of this ilk, regarded as bottom feeders that profit from the war without engaging in combat, these 20-something’s kinda like it.
Jonah Hill’s performs his morally corrupt character with the venom and arrogance that one would expect from someone in his line of work. Hill would gain a substantial amount of weight for the role, which gives a swagger to his walk and a presence that challenges Miles Teller’s more straight-laced, but easily led, Packouz character. Diveroli’s quasi-bipolar mood swings and sociopathic Machiavellian character traits (notably his ability to transform himself into any character as to please, and to gain the trust, of anyone else for any advantage) culminates to a show-stealing performance from Hill: and that high-pitched creepy laugh, becoming a leitmotif, marks him a disturbed person.
Director Todd Phillips is no stranger to depicting characters making terrible decisions (The Hangover trilogy), nor is he a stranger to conveying a myriad of high-action scenes and bro-comedic banter. Regarding the latter, the jolt from brutal action to comedy, or vice versa, makes a film like War Dogs darkly hollow, and unintentionally uncomfortable. Whereas films like The Wolf of Wall Street and Lord of War, two films that this film is clearly influenced by, have an underpinning commentary to accompany the tonal shifts, War Dogs goes through the beats of conventional storytelling and retreads the rhetoric of yesteryear without a visual flare to mark itself against the grain. It’s uncomfortable, yet strangely bland.
This blandness derives from the lacklustre Packouz and Iz’s relationship. Iz is a characterised as a prude. She’s the voice-of-reason, the incorruptible maternal figure to the two crazy arms dealers who indulge in recreational drugs (seriously, are weed jokes still edgy or funny?). Ana de Armas is given little with this paper-thin character, and audiences are left not caring for the obstacles and triumphs of Iz and Packouz’s relationship. Two blandly written characters, with one given significantly less than the other, marks for an uninteresting subplot.
War Dogs is uncertain as to where to pitch its tone and relies on the chemistry between the two leads. Yes, there is much rapport, but more is needed. This disposable, forgettable, and all-around disappointing film will make those familiar with its true story origin irked by the squandered potential depicted on the screen.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★