Todd Phillips knows how to make a comedy about man-children who are unwilling or unable to grow up. Old School, The Hangover, and Due Date are all testament to Phillip’s uncanny ability to explore this arrested development. In War Dogs, Phillips attempts to move on to more serious fare, yet he can’t seem to leave behind the comfort of his comedic roots. As a result, War Dogs is a half comedy, and half Lord of War ripoff fused together into something that is neither wholly compelling, nor all that horrible either.
The story is very familiar if you’ve watched any crime movie ever. As previously stated, the movie is even more familiar if you’ve seen Lord of War, which also covers the allure and trappings of gunrunning. Our protagonist David Packouz (Miles Teller) is a down on his luck loser and massage therapist with a baby on the way. By chance, David meets up with a charismatic old friend, Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), who invites him to join a shady but profitable arms dealer business. Together the duo attempts to make as much as much money as possible before everything (inevitably/predictably) goes belly up.
Philips’s direction isn’t bad at all. The film is extremely bright and oversaturated (reminiscent of Pain and Gain, another true crime drama in the city of sin that is Miami), as it revels in the rakish actions of our bad boy War Dogs. Initially an insulting term, the War Dogs label becomes one of endearment that our protagonists enjoy and identify with. Phillips attempts to examine more serious topics within War Dogs but fails to do anything but skim the surface. War is a business and that’s bad, but Phillips fails to show much of anything beyond that slightly naive message. The somber, the meaningful, and horrific results of our protagonists’ actions are not shown to the audience. Yes, David and Efraim do get theirs in the end, but the moral isn’t as impactful as it could have been. Phillips’s could have made a dark satire like M*A*S*H or reformulated a more straightforward rip-off of Lord of War with humorous elements, which is what he tried to do, but ultimately failed.
Jonah Hill is easily the best thing in the film. He’s a charismatic, charming, and an utterly despicable human being. Easily working almost everyone who he comes into contact with to get what he wants, Jonah Hill also provides much of War Dogs’ humor through his outrageous actions and antics. But much like the ying must come with the yang as good as Jonah Hill’s performance is, Miles Teller’s character is just as bland. Teller seems to have the same blank expression on his face for most of the movie. Perhaps Teller’s tabula rasa face was a result of the “stoner” he was trying to portray in the film. Regardless, Teller’s presence is serviceable, but a better actor to compliment Hill would have rounded out the movie.
Unlike fellow comedy commissario, Adam McKay, whose leap into the dramatic ‘based on a true story’ genre yielded the great film expose, The Big Short, Philips's’ War Dogs is, like its protagonist, merely mediocre. Buoyed by a strong performance from Jonah Hill and some fun ‘It’s good to be bad’ moments, the film does little more than retread familiar ground from Phillips’s past comedies about young men behaving badly. Stapled onto Phillips’s familiar formula is a Lord of War style plot in which young gunrunners rise and profit through lies and illicit means, before failing spectacularly. The film does deserve credit for its attempt to be a serious drama showcasing the horrific business side of war, the Pentagon, and the U.S. military-industrial complex, but these objectives are undercut by the louche actions of our protagonists and the often lowbrow, irreverent humor that is derived from them (though it is funny). There is a good movie in here somewhere, but what we’re ultimately left with is a wash. War Dogs is a movie not clever enough to be sardonic and a drama not serious enough to matter.
TLDR: War Dogs plays like a mashup of The Hangover and Lord of War. Unfortunately, it fails to have enough laughs of the former or the originality of the latter. 3/5 Stars.