War Dogs (2016)

  • Director – Todd Phillips
  • Starring – Jonah Hill, Miles Tellar & Ana de Armas
  • Writer – Stephen Chin, Todd Phillips & Jason Smilovic (screenplay).  Guy Lawson – Rolling Stone article “Arms and the Dudes’
  • Year – 2016
  • Running Time – 114 mins

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In 2004’s Old School, director Todd Phillips brought us the outrageous Frank the Tank streaking his way through the night.  This time round it’s a very different kind of tank in Phillips’ latest offering, War Dogs, a black comedy about bullets, bros and bazookas.

Following in the footsteps of the far superior The Big Short, War Dogs is another film to take comedic aim at greed, those who profit from instability and, in this case, actually reap the spoils of war.  While not entirely successful, it is an interesting departure from the recent Hangover trilogy and does succeed in being Phillips’ most accomplished movie to date.

War Dogs is based on the true story of two ex-high school brothers in arms, Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) and David Packouz (Miles Teller), who after reuniting at a funeral, join forces and enter the arms business and soon talk their way into landing a $300 million US army military contract.  However, they soon find themselves in dire straits and under intense pressure to deliver 100 million rounds of ammunition in short order.

The duo’s company, AEY, operates in the murky middle ground between shady Eastern European arms dealers and the military.  Their offices fit the bill perfectly and are like the fantasy creation of a teenage boy who has watched too many 80s action films.  Guns are everywhere. They are mounted on the walls (the ones that aren’t made of glass, mind you), moulded into table lamps and also within other innovative approaches to office furniture.  Frankly, the only thing missing is a backlit fish tank.

Diveroli is in all areas, the senior partner and is relentless in his determination to chase the military dollar through bidding for relatively small-scale military contracts.  The profits are swift, lucrative and intoxicating. So much so that Diveroli quickly sweeps up his old high school best friend into a life of Scarface influenced excess.

War Dogs is a strange mix of tones.  On one hand, you have the standard tropes of a stoner comedy, while on the other an attempt at a morality tale.  The former generally works in places, though the latter disappoints and never really feels like it has the courage of its own convictions.

Hill takes the heavy lifting on the comedic side and is frankly a weapon all by himself.  Diveroli is the epitome of a larger than life character with crass humour and even crasser morals, coupled with dangerous levels of self-confidence, mixed with a singularity of self-preservation. The comedy between the pair works best when it is focussed on the incredulity of the situations they find themselves in, though the scenes of how they enjoy their new found wealth are uneven and at times make for uneasy viewing.

Teller as Packouz attempts to bring a level of humanity and morality to the partnership but falls a little short on both accounts.  Tellar seems to work best in his character’s extremes.  Gullible and exploitable in the early stages and then later and more effectively when the reality of the situation begins to dawn.  Though considering this is something we all saw coming 90 mins previously, this dawning does seem to take a while. Both Packouz and his partner Iz (Ana de Armas) claim to be ‘against the war’, but this is glossed over without any serious examination and sadly this is about as far as Packouz goes in addressing the morality of what is happening.

Where Packouz’s falls short, Phillips through his immersive directions picks up some of the slack and is effective in demonstrating how tempting, all-consuming and single-minded greed can be.  Alliances, both personal and in business, are quickly formed, though often easily broken and discarded without a second thought of the personal or longer-term consequences this will cause.  The use of title cards also works particularly well, by pre-empting both what is to come, while also serving to demonstrate the inevitably of what will become of the pair.

War Dogs will certainly do nothing for the Albanian tourist board, and while it fails to really make any kind of statement on the business (and consequences) of war, it is an entertaining enough, though more dark grey rather than black comedy, of two entrepreneurs operating in a dangerous world.  Frustratingly though, it also hints at what could have been.

★★★

Review by Will Malone

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