War Dogs is on Target with Performances but Misfires on Meaning
War Dogs is a divergence from Todd Phillips previous work. Mixing elements of Lord of War, Scarface, and the Big Short, Phillips attempts to scrutinise the shadowy world of arms industry with a comedic twist. War Dogs, rather loosely, retells the story of Efram Diveroli (Jonah Hill) and David Packouz (Miles Teller), a pair of college drop-outs who make a fortune selling arms to the US government at the height of the War on Terror. Initially, their operation is small, manageable, covert and profitable. Predictably, the stakes rapidly escalate; they stumble into a massive contract selling 100 million AK-47 bullets to the American government. As reason subordinates to greed and power, the house of cards emphatically collapses and a reckoning ensues.
The true story of two confused males rekindling a bromance while ripping off the American government would have been attractive to Phillips; he has form in this field. He directed the Hangover Franchise and Starsky and Hutch, both of which pivot on the interaction and personality clashes of their male characters. This chemistry imbalance often has hilarious consequences; the straight-laced Starsky is corrupted by the free-thinking liberal Hutch; and Bradley Cooper’s Phil Wenneck instigated the moral descent of dentist Dr Price.
On this familiar ground, Phillips looks most comfortable, absurdity and reckless male ego hold War Dogs together. Both characters are directionless but for different reasons. Packouz is completely lost professionally. He works as a masseuse – his sixth position in two years- or as Diveroli likes to say “jacks men off for a living.” He needs a change and the arms trade offers a highway to riches. Diveroli is morally shipwrecked. Bloated, foul-mouthed, racist, vulgar and an unashamed financial braggart he thrives on emotional manipulation and financial exploitation. Jonah Hill is fantastic as this repellent machismo blob. At times his timing on a turn of phrase is deliciously devastating,“we drive all triangles, especially your mums” he tauntingly says to a GI. Packouz’s good-guy persona contrasts well with the despicable Diveroli; we can tell the difference between an individual who with good intentions sleep-walks into iniquity to a wicked, maniacal, miscreant.
Comedic highlights include a pursuit through the Iraqi Triangle of Death. While under attack from Iraqi insurgents their guide screams “Must go faster! Fallujah bad! Must go faster Fallujah very bad!” to which Packouz incredulously replies “We stopped for fuel in Fallujah, bro?!?” Yes, indeed. Fallujah 08’ was not the site of the bearded craft beer revolution. It’s an absurd Jeff Goldblum Jurassic Park moment with a War on Terror twist.
War Dogs is not trying to be an absurd male comedy, however; it’s trying to be a serious movie. In this pursuit, it falls into too many cliched traps. Firstly, violence is juxtaposed with a classic score. In one scene, Hill shoots an AK-47 along to Pink Floyd’s anti-war anthem Wish You Were Here, a contrived copy of Scorcese’s use of Cream or the Rolling Stones in Goodfellas. Teller’s voice over is also too forced. In one example, he calls an arms convention “Comi-con with grenades”; this is a script pleading to be taken seriously, desperately trying to frame the characters as witty raconteurs. Bradley Cooper looks buffoonish as the superstar of the illegal arms trade, Henry Gerard. Adorned with red sunglasses and slick-back hair he looks more like Bono’s evil twin.
The problem is clear: War Dogs is trying to be too many things at once to be anything meaningful. When their grand scheme inevitably falls apart the audience is told the duo can again sell guns to the American government in 2022, a development that surprises us, if for the wrong reasons. This statement doesn’t fit in with the trajectory of the movie: suddenly War Dogs is an indictment on the American government and the military industrial complex. For most of the movie, we have been invited to enjoy the journey and laugh with the characters. On shooting for meaning War Dogs misfires badly.