Raucous entertainment and early promise inevitably succumbs to drab predictability in Todd Phillips’ War Dogs. Based on the true story of David Packouz (Miles Teller) and Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), two twentysomething friends who bluffed their way into a multi-million dollar Pentagon contract and were subsequently arrested by the FBI, here we have a film that is The Wolf of Wall Street with AK-47s and a hundred million rounds of ammo rather than shoddy stocks and bonds.
Following a comparable narrative arc to the Scorsese flick, sharing its use of narration and operating in a similarly grey area – international arms dealing here – quaaludes are not the drug of choice for Hill this time around but between bong hits and lines of coke, he and dudebro Teller are out to make money, money, make money, money! It’s hard to really know what note Phillips was attempting to strike or what point he wanted to make with his latest – there may not be one – but the Old School and Hangover trilogy director takes to proceedings with the same beer funnel finesse as former frat pack projects. There’s definitely a joke to be made about the idea of Frank the Tank brokering an arms deal but, though there is no Will Ferrell cameo, War Dogs is caught somewhere between Nicolas Cage’s Lord of War and the filmmaker’s KY jelly wrestling brand of comedy; therein lies the problem.
Much like Tina Fey’s Whisky Tango Foxtrot earlier this year, it begs the question as to whether we should elicit such in your face comedy from the Iraq conflict and collateral damage of big bucks being made in the name of war. Never is there a sense of remorse or wrongdoing and Packouz’s initial aversion to Bush et al is swiftly forgotten in the name of a monstrous payday and a Miami high rise apartment which he shares with stunning girlfriend, Iz (Ana de Armas) and their baby girl. To begin with there are moments of genuine humour. Hill, perma-tanned, sporting huge aviators and a multitude of rings, adopts the kind of awkward laugh that induces laughter and Teller, working as a massage therapist and failing luxury bedding salesman, is very funny in his own laconic, rather tragic way. But there are only so many lines like “Iraq is dope!” that we can stomach before it all becomes tiresome.
Foreshadowing from the script that appears as screen notes are increasingly irritating as things wear on and a lively soundtrack that hits CCR, Iggy Pop, Aerosmith and Wolfmother make things punchy and dynamic but cannot disguise a lack of substance from the midway point onwards. Lies and deceit cause rifts in the homestead as well as the boys’ partnership and things head south fairly quickly. The director, and his central pairing, cares so little for the consequences of their actions that this reflects on how we feel about War Dogs as a whole. “This is about being pro-money,” says Diveroli early on; it’s the same such callousness and lack of subtlety that sees Phillips miss the mark here.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens