Title: War Dogs
Release Date: August 19th, 2016
Studio: Warner Bros
Director: Todd Phillips
Release Format: Theatrical
War Dogs is a film made with an aura of self-satisfaction that radiates from an overly smug director. After all, the structure is broken up by a series of title cards containing quotes later said by a particular character. The problem is that the contents of War Dogs are neither provocative nor offensive enough to warrant such audacity. For a film deadest on highlighting the actions of young gun runners through government contracts, there’s nothing here that’s particularly shocking. At a runtime just shy of two hours, the biggest offense is the lack of substance in this derivative misfire. Considering the talented people involved, it is all the more disappointing.
Based on a Rolling Stone article, the movie is based on real-life arms dealers David Packouz and Efraim Diveroli. In the midst of the Iraq War, these two twenty-somethings were able to supply arms to the U.S. and its allies. Neither is particularly endearing which is one of the cardinal sins committed by the film. Director Todd Phillips makes no attempt to make either protagonist sympathetic. As The Wolf of Wall Street so eloquently demonstrated, the antics of a despicable character can be both enlightening and cinematic. Simply because your characters are the focal point of a story does not entail that an audience should root for them.
David (Miles Teller) serves as the narrator and guide through the labyrinth of the duos lowball tactics. David is a natural do-gooder, working as a masseuse for the Miami elite. He accidentally gambles his future on a bedsheet deal which leaves him and his girlfriend in a rut. His luck turns when he’s reunited with Diveroli, his old friend from middle school. In their first reunion outside of a funeral, David witnesses Efraim whip out a machine gun to score marijuana. Immediately, Efraim clearly has a few screws loose but David has no problem going to work for him. His financial situation is concerning but he’s not portrayed as truly desperate. As a result, there’s not enough to become invested in his predicament.
For an actor who has proven to be a commanding presence, Teller gives a completely ineffectual performance. Teller sleepwalks throughout the film and there’s no point where David wrestles with an ethical dilemma regarding his business. As the straight man, he’s a poor avatar to represent the average moviegoer. David is not portrayed as being particularly bright. He lies repeatedly to his one-dimensional girlfriend and continuously fails to see through Efrain’s veil of ill-boding decisions. The real life David Packouz was far more interesting, which goes a long way in undermining the film’s intentions.
Much like Tony Montana whom his character idolizes, Jonah Hill’s performance is broad but consistently entertaining. It may sound impossible but it’s an even bigger performance than his role in The Wolf of Wall Street. Hill has no issue portraying a drug induced sleazebag but there’s very little that feels recycled. His irritating cackle garners more laugh than anything else in the entire film, which has been incorrectly marketed as a laugh riot. Not only that, it’s barely satirical. Too many of the decisions made by Todd Phillips are so laughable that they remove the sting of some of the film’s events. For example, the soundtrack is an eclectic mix of well-known hits that are about as subtle as an RPG.
There’s an instance in which the film perfectly laid the groundwork for poignant commentary. David and Efraim eventually come into contact with a more experienced arms dealer (Bradley Cooper). Cooper, while his screen time is minimal, gives a menacing performance, unlike anything he’s done before. Cooper’s character is even shadier than they are and states he’s on a terrorist watch list. Much like the majority of the film, David blindly follows Efraim into doing business with him. Sure he brings it up as a conflict of interest but he’s coerced fairly quickly. This was a perfect instance for Phillips to demonstrate the brutality of the world they were sinking further into. He keeps the microscope on the two leads instead, completely ignoring the circumstances they were complicit in implicating.
Todd Phillips, who has a track record of directing several outlandish films (The Hangover, Old School, Due Date, etc.), pulls back on the shock value. Cocaine is snorted and clips of ammunition are dispersed but it becomes white noise (no pun intended) after a point. When it gets to scenes of audacious actions, most are entirely fabricated for the sake of the film. As an example, their experience running guns through “The Triangle of Death” never occurred and that’s the best part of the movie. A film with a similarly insane story was Michael Bay’s Pain and Gain, which was also a satire of American values. Most of what was depicted in that film were true, to the point in which the film had to remind you as such. War Dogs rings of hollow misdirection, which is ironic considering the controversies during that period in our history.
- Jonah Hill
- Bradley Cooper's Understated Performance
- Entertaining Albeit Shallow
- Underwhelming Miles Teller Performance
- No Confidence in Being Audacious
- Lacks Punch
Matt is a longtime film buff, writer and podcast host from Rhode Island. Ask him what his favorite films are and you will probably get a different answer every time. In addition to writing for The Nerd Stash, Matt writes for The Young Folks, which is also the home of his podcast Directors of Cinema.