Todd Phillips, who got his start making documentaries about college dudebro culture (Frat House) and controversial, intense punk rock musician GG Allin (Hated: GG Allin and the Murder Junkies), has always tested the boundaries of just how far he can take his characters into contemptibility and still make an entertaining, riveting movie. In that aspect, Phillips shares a common trait with filmmakers like Martin Scorsese – like Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street, War Dogs is fascinated with the unsavory, the criminal, and the unrepentantly masculine. War Dogs could be considered Scorsese-light – Phillips uses musical needle drops and the film’s editing style is very similar to Thelma Schoonmaker’s. Phillips even uses voiceover, as David Packouz (Miles Teller) tells his rags-to-riches-to-rags story of how he and his junior high school best friend Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) managed to take advantage of some government loopholes and provide weapons to the United States military and make a pretty penny doing it. Based on the Rolling Stone article and subsequent book Arms and the Dudes by Guy Lawson, War Dogs follows Packouz and Diveroli as they manage to scam the military, other foreign governments, and in the end, each other.
How much is fiction and how much is fact is up to the audience to discover, but Phillips is able to make this far-fetched scenario very believable. When David sees Efraim at a mutual friend’s funeral, Efraim is very eager to get David involved in his business, looking for the “crumbs” in the many government bid contracts that sprang up during the Iraq War. Efraim figures that they can help fill the small orders, and since it’s all government money anyway, they can easily make a profit. War Dogs never gets into the specifics, but like The Wolf of Wall Street, those specifics aren’t necessary to understand the movie. In no time at all, David and Efraim are driving from Jordan to Iraq to deliver illegally-procured Berettas to the Iraqi police force, and when they become successful, David and Efraim get the attention of some big players in the military contract community, including some shady businessmen like the mysterious Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper).
War Dogs is a big step up for Todd Phillips, who seemed to have plateaued himself after the “Hangover” movies. War Dogs is very much a comedy, but Phillips, along with screenwriters Stephen Chin and Jason Smilovic, also examines with dispassion just how Kafkaesque the United States military was (and still is) during the war. No one is aware of what anyone is doing, which makes it easy for Packouz and Diveroli to take advantage. These guys aren’t smart, are stoned all the time, but also know a great opportunity when they see it. Packouz is especially motivated to do well – his girlfriend Iz (Ana de Armas) is having his child, and he wants to give them more than what he could make as a massage therapist. While Diveroli is in it for the cash, the drugs, and the sex, Packouz wants to make enough money to live a good life. Miles Teller gives Packouz an innate sense of decency, but the lies and deception take its toll on him and his relationship. Teller also has great chemistry and comic timing with his co-stars, and is very much the audience’s surrogate as the film navigates through the complex world of arms dealing.
Jonah Hill’s Oscar nominations were no fluke. He can be hilarious one moment, and quite scary the next. Efraim is all things to all people, whatever can get him the deal he seeks or the help he needs, and Hill plays Efraim as a master manipulator – of the military, of their benefactor Ralph Slutsky (Kevin Pollak), of the sellers and the buyers, and even of David. Jonah Hill is terrific as Efraim, in one of the best roles of his career. Sometimes Efraim himself doesn’t know who he’s manipulating, and Hill gives Efraim the right amount of ooze and slime, but we are still able to see the young man underneath, alone, outsmarted, and outmatched. Efraim is riding this horse as long as it will carry him, and regardless of who it hurts along the way. In The Wolf of Wall Street, Jonah Hill’s character had a kind of moral compass, even if it was muddied and scattered. Efraim has no such direction, and is willing to screw over everyone to get what he wants.
Sometimes Phillips relies too much on voiceover, especially when War Dogs is explaining plot points that are already evident. The film wants us to realize that these guys aren’t heroes, but the audience is doing just fine figuring that out on their own, and the film should trust its audience a bit more. Ana de Armas isn’t given much to do except be the supporting significant other to David and to give him grief when his lies become evident. Todd Phillips is obviously, happily, riffing on Scorsese, but he’s also doing a decent job of it. This story isn’t new; it’s been told many times over the years, of men who, in trying to make a quick buck, lose sight of their morals and quickly go in over their head, and while Phillips doesn’t put the freshest spin on it, he injects enough humor into War Dogs that the film becomes very entertaining – in an odd way, we’re rooting for these guys even as we despise them, and that is due to the excellent work of Teller and Hill. This story may be routine, but their performances aren’t.
War Dogs is very funny, until it isn’t; Todd Phillips has always been very skilled at bringing the comedy to situations that ordinary people would recoil from. We see the friendship of David and Efraim tested, and we see beneath the rock of international arms dealing at the insects scurrying from the light, and we see the absurdity of how people will justify terrible behavior for a little money and a little power. In films like The Hangover or Old School, we laugh to see these men hurt each other and put themselves into bad situations – we laugh, because it’s not us. We laugh, because these guys deserve it, a little bit. But in War Dogs, after a while, we stop laughing, because these simple men, with delusions of grandeur, and a wasted intellect that cannot hope to match their unchecked pride and ego, aren’t just hurting themselves. Instead, we’re all getting screwed, and that’s not so funny.
War Dogs is an excellent step forward for Todd Phillips – like Adam McKay, who applied his comedy to the serious story of the housing crash in The Big Short, Phillips is stepping into a deeper ocean. But while McKay’s outrage is evident in his film, Phillips doesn’t bring that sense of anger to War Dogs. He is more detached, distant, and not as brave in exposing the damage that these men did. The best jokes aren’t just funny, but illuminate and reveal truth, and they can cut. War Dogs can’t quite do that, and Phillips can’t wield that sense of injustice like McKay or Scorsese can. But he’s still crafted a very funny, very entertaining movie and I look forward to seeing where this new path takes Phillips as a filmmaker. You can see the great movie inside War Dogs, but for now we’ll have to settle for merely a very good one.
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