War Dogs, a true-story adaptation of twentysomething-bro gunrunners gaming the American government, attempts to meld manic energy and macho irresponsibility in the vivid, vibrant veins of Pain & Gain, The Big Short, The Social Network, The Wolf of Wall Street or Lord of War.
But director / co-writer Todd Phillips’ firing pins are defective from the outset in his worst film yet.
Phillips is the rowdy comedy impresario behind the Hangover trilogy and Due Date, here clearly mirroring peer Adam McKay’s Oscar-winning bid for ambitious social satire in The Big Short. You name the problem, War Dogs has it (casting, tension, pacing, writing, tone). Its biggest issue? An absence of even the slightest moral outrage over what Efraim Diveroli and David Packouz pulled off roughly a decade ago (and which is in steady supply in all of the films with which War Dogs can’t hang).
Creators would likely point to a lack of gratuitous action or sex as a response to charges that it feels dubiously lightweight. Criminal consequences certainly befell both men, but Phillips presents a comparative wrist-slap for one of them as a “high five, dude!” moment. Skating over how insignificant these punishments seem falls perilously close to wish-fulfillment. What’s meant to feel like a relief instead rousts only disgust. And a “what would you do?” final shot is framed with all the portent of Christopher Nolan’s spinning top when it’s just a limp, lame cap to a film that feels like carpetbagging.
When Phillips’ ugly-Americans-abroad metaphors land better in a Bangkok bachelor-party romp than a real-life story concerning willful destabilization in the Middle East, something is fatally awry. War Dogs engages what we’re supposed to be enraged about with the gravitas of an Entourage episode.
Based on a Rolling Stone article, it focuses on two of Diveroli and Packouz’s deals with their company, AEY, in the late 2000s, one of which made them and one of which slayed them. These high-school buddies reunited at a friend’s funeral in Miami — Packouz a college dropout turned masseur with misguided entrepreneurship dreams, Diveroli coming off a run in L.A. reselling police-seized weapons online.
Diveroli lets Packouz tag along on his latest venture, feeding on crumbs from the procurement process for America’s military-industrial complex. Tanks, jets and the like are left to the conglomerates. But small-time schlubs like Diveroli and Packouz could supply a few guns here, a little bit of ammo there.
They break big with a shipment of Berettas given to Iraqi security forces by way of American troops. (In one of the film’s few good jokes, Packouz initially presumes Jordan is a fellow Jew with whom they’ll collaborate, not a shared border with Iraq through which they’ll have to illegally smuggle the guns.)
When forced to literally run those guns themselves, it’s the only real flicker of danger — prompting a livewire moment where they must fill a gas tank while accelerating away from insurgents and a darkly funny quip about how 50/50 odds of living must seem good to the smuggler (Shaun Toub) helping them.
But the duo can’t remain content splitting steady seven figures and tempts fate trying to move 100 million rounds of AK-47 ammo into Afghanistan. They run afoul of Albanian gangsters, international embargoes, spouses’ prying eyes, internal betrayals and a shady colleague (Bradley Cooper, doing his buddy Phillips a solid even as he seems to think he’s in a perilously serious version of Phillips’ Starsky & Hutch).
In even his lightest work, Phillips achieved audiovisual ominousness or inventiveness. Here, that’s consumed by what he supposes a serious movie must look, and sound, like. An in medias res opening flashing back to safer times. Slightly turbulent handheld cameras for Urgency™ and freeze-frames for Dramatic Emphasis®. Hallway-long push-ins. Cobalt-blue desaturation for Eastern Europe and contrast-cranked yellows and reds in the Middle East. Pretentious onscreen chapter breaks with dim quotes like “When did telling the truth help anybody?”
Meanwhile, composer Cliff Martinez recycles work from no fewer than four previous films (including Drive). Most of the rest of the soundtrack is a classic-rock rundown that’s not only a generation removed from its lead characters, but painfully predictable. (A moratorium, please, on “Fortunate Son” for rah-rah irony, “Funk #49” for stoner laughs or “Behind Blue Eyes” for the inevitable hammer-fall.)
There’s no “Gimme Shelter,” but War Dogs feels like a sort of Martin Scorsese LEGO set, down to a Jonah Hill minifig with articulated middle fingers you can raise to the sky. Were it not for Hill, War Dogs would be utterly useless.
As Diveroli, Hill is more or less doing a variation on his Oscar-nominated Wolf of Wall Street toady with a larger spotlight. And his signature, broken-voiced laugh seems workshopped with Vince Vaughn for maximum annoyance. But Hill tries to reconcile Efraim’s cutthroat confidence with his corpulent build, with a jittery edge approaching Sean Penn’s dementedly ambitious lawyer in Carlito’s Way. You suspect he has already nervously tread water around bigger sharks and fed on their scraps long enough to grow strong and swim to his own pond. When probed as to what AEY stands for, Diveroli insolently fires the fellow who asks. But think of it as an Arthur Fonzarelli-ish pronunciation — with none of the sincerity — and it seems like a good enough answer.
As for those AEY employees, much is made of Diveroli and Packouz’s ability to bring them aboard before they’re largely never seen again. It’s the first of the film’s many inconsistencies with basic storytelling. Later, Packouz reveals he has kept a ream of ass-covering evidence hidden for years … but yet can’t think to store an important contract somewhere safer than his unlocked desk drawer.
His natural livewire energy again MIA, Teller plays Packouz with the same drab-drip mentality he’s brought to his last half-dozen movies. He’s also saddled with endlessly irksome narration that constantly recaps events we’ve just seen – as if dryly reciting them back to us will impart an energy that was initially missing. (Plus, Teller and Hill’s voices sound so similar that it takes about 20 minutes to realize they’re not, in fact, trying to hand the voiceover off to each other like a baton no one wants to grasp.)
Watching these bros bristle and their bond go brittle quickly becomes boring, and what could have been a twitchy, tough satire simply settles into a lifeless, lazy anteroom between antics and accountability.