James Cole Clay // Film Critic
Comedy director Todd Phillips (THE HANGOVER trilogy) is making a pivot in his filmmaking career with the drama film WAR DOGS. The marketing department over at Warner Bros. portrayed the film to be a kinetic romp seeped in hyper masculinity. (Phillips excels when he’s operating on this level and it makes sense why he’s going in a slightly different direction after three HANGOVER movies.)
While WAR DOGS is often entertaining and offers a flavorful combination between the leads, the film ultimately takes a few hits of shrapnel due to surface level plotting that could have easily been more nuanced.
WAR DOGS has a great logline: based on a true story, friends David Packouz (Miles Teller) and Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) win a $300 million dollar contract from the Pentagon to arm American allies in Afghanistan.
It narratively starts off like any other movies, where a group of guys hustle their way to the top of some strange, yet lucrative organization only to find themselves falling as fast as they got up.
“This isn’t about being pro-war,” Efraim says to David about the business. “It’s about being pro-money! (This sounds a bit like THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, GOODFELLAS, CASINO and tons of other Martin Scorsese pictures.) Packouz describes who he is and where he came from and how the business works, like a cookbook of sorts. It’s a solid pathway to use for a narrative frame, but it’s been done before.
While Phillips directs the hell out of the movie and still accomplishes a visual style that grounds the heightened antics of his characters, a lot of it is borrowed-mainly from the films listed above, and by comparison is pretty limp. Luckily, that’s a fantastic template to borrow from and while being so much like Scorsese prevents it from being a great film. It also kind of saves the movie from falling apart.
Jonah Hill again completely shines through with another excellent performance of year-end proportions. His take on Diveroli is funny, frustrating and ultimately frightening. He plays the small-time arms dealer as a gangster who can as he puts it “become the person they want me to be.” Hill is up to the challenge of playing such a complex character; he makes Diveroli (somewhat) of a sad character with a hint of his signature comedic talents, which means he completely outshines Teller, But next to Hill, it’s hard to even hold a candle; Teller just isn’t that scene stealing type of actor.
We’re never really allowed to root for these guys, basically because one of them is deplorable and the other is so bland it’s easy to see where his storyline is going. The two guys having hustled their way to the top of international arms dealing and screenwriters Stephen Chin, Jason Smilovic and Phillips do an excellent job explaining how the industry works and how legal/illegal their actions are, yet they should’ve gone deeper, they seemed to be afraid to confuse the audience. (Something the excellent film THE BIG SHORT didn’t care one bit about.) Instead from being a heroic, it becomes a morality tale.
WAR DOGS is a mixed bag of great lines of snappy dialogue and a couple of truly intense scenes, yet somehow (aside from Hill) it all seems half-baked with several empty spaces to fill. If Phillips could have distanced the film more from other movies mentioned here, WAR DOGS would’ve been a much better film overall.
WAR DOGS opens nationwide on Friday.