Todd Phillips’ latest comedy War Dogs, about two guys risking it all to deliver a $300,000,000 weapons contract to the US military, has some laughs but no edge.
What were you doing when you were a 22 year-old? Regretting studying a Humanities degree that you thought would allow you to do anything in the world, only to find out that ‘anything’ quickly translated into nothing? Or were you working in a dead-end admin job at an advertising agency, firmly believing that this was your ‘foot in the door’ moment – even though no one important knew your name?
Personally I was rewatching Will & Grace box sets while covered in ice cream… but just look at me now! I’m rewatching Will & Grace box sets while covered in gluten free ice cream!
Whatever you were doing, it probably wasn’t running guns across the Jordanian border of Iraq. That’s what David Packouz (Miles Teller) and Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), two Jewish guys in their early 20s from Florida, are doing in Todd Phillips’ latest comedy based on a Rolling Stones article.
The film opens with a flash-forward to David being chucked out of the boot of a car in Albania, beaten up and having a gun put to his head – in case you forgot the stakes of running guns across borders were pretty high. Rewind a few months, he’s massaging rich men’s glutes in Florida and secretly harbouring dreams of making big money selling high-end Egyptian cotton sheets to retirement homes (Jesus, aim high, brother).
Then in swaggers Jonah Hill’s Efraim Diveroli – slicked back hair, tanned, with garish jewellery and timepieces; a blessed way out of David’s insipid existence. He tells David he makes money by bidding on and delivering weapons contracts and wants David to join him. A baby on the way makes this lucrative offer a no-brainer. A quick trip to Iraq and an encounter with some Fallujah rebels later, and the money starts flooding in.
With the set-up clinically and briskly put in place, the rest of the film concerns itself with Efraim and David’s attempt to secure and deliver a massive $300,000,000 deal including 100 million rounds of AK-47 ammunition. And along the way they have to deal with the shady and legendary arms dealer Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper).
Arms dealers, Albanian gangsters, guns, shootouts in Fallujah, hundreds of millions of dollars; the stakes are high, but War Dogs is sadly quite flat.
Every action scene is cold and impatiently filmed, as if Phillips simply couldn’t wait to jump onto the next ‘can you believe this really happened!’ anecdote. Then there’s the odd decision to make Miles Teller the film’s narrator, while prefacing each act with an upcoming quote from one of the characters. Rather than inspiring interest or ramping-up tension, it undermined it by constantly preparing viewers for what’s to come.
However, War Dogs is funny, with most of the gags are delivered by Jonah Hill. From his demented whiny laugh that puts Jared Leto’s to shame, to the insane tan and huge panoramic poster of Tony Montana in his office, Hill’s Efraim is a psychopathic, seedy and greedy man who is the last person who should be entrusted with a $300,000,000 military contract.
This behaviour, ironically, is what makes him get the contract in the first place (and is one of the few condemnatory moments when the film acutely feels like The Big Short). Hill is by the far the most interesting aspect of War Dogs. We should hate him, but because he goes all out; because he has no filter, we admire him. Even when his behaviour becomes so erratic that it endangers the whole operation, we still want him to succeed.
This sociopathic brain and ability to “be the person you want him to be” should make his relationship with by-the-book David fascinating. Is Efraim merely playing the role of the thrill-seeking friend that David so desperately yearns for? Did Efraim approach David because he trusts him or because he can manipulate him? The film thinks it tees-up and answers these questions sufficiently, but as the dangers increase and the relationships strain, there’s so much left unexplored.
Ultimately, War Dogs is one of those films that you would describe as ‘harmless’. A film that aims to condemn an institution for its systemic corruption while not possessing any real insight or edge to do so sufficiently well. 3/5