Budding businessman David Packouz (Miles Teller) is struggling to establish himself as an entrepreneur, until a chance meeting with erstwhile best friend Efraim Diveroli (Johan Hill) opens his eyes to the lucrative possibilities of the international arms trade. Establishing themselves as AEY Inc. and sniffing around for juicy government contracts, the pair eventually manage to snag themselves a gig worth $289 million. Trouble is, with contacts proving suspicious and dodgy dealings leading to double-crossings, they soon realize that they’re small fish in a big, dangerous pond.
At the turn of the millennium, Todd Phillips had cornered the market on putting the fever dreams of adolescent boys onscreen. He was making movies about road trips to retrieve sex tapes and middle-aged frat boys, revelling in the gross-out opportunities his raucous subject matter afforded him. Over a decade later, and with the fifth highest-grossing R-rated movie of all time under his belt, he has his sights set on bigger fish: namely, the international arms trade. This may seem like an overreach for a filmmaker with eyes normally set squarely on the midriff, but if Adam McKay’s The Big Short proved anything, it’s that silly directors can be adept at handling Big Issues™. Alas, to both its credit and its detriment, War Dogs sits comfortably at home in its director’s wheelhouse.
Which, in and of itself, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. One of the best things about the Phillips brand is the sense of craftsmanshp underpinning the boobs and dick jokes. Lowbrow as his intentions may be, he nonetheless understands the need to give the narrative a fluid sense of momentum, dedicate time to establish the tone and environment, and use the language of cinema to his advantage. This may sound patronizingly trite, but with the ‘point the camera at a bunch of funny people as they riff’ style dominating contemporary comedy, it’s refreshing see a funny filmmaker give a shit about making something that works as a film.
Casting, too, is reliably on the mark. Just as The Wolfpack perfectly gelled in The Hangover and the Downey Jr. and Galifanakis pairing of Due Date made that movie’s flaws almost bearable (almost), War Dogs puts its money on the perfect mutts. Miles Teller, with his cornering of the ‘modestly arrogant prodigy’ market, is expectedly solid, fitting right at home in a tale of capitalist excess and underhand government dealings. More volatile and all-round exciting, though, is his partner in crime. Having broken out of his stoner improv cycle to test his limits with diverse and challenging performances, Johan Hill brings a manic energy to the movie that marks his scenes as far and away the best thing here. He’s unpredictable, untrustworthy and, ultimately, unknowable, and it’s this delicious complexity that makes him so fascinating.
Alas, the rest of the movie lumbers to catch up with him. In all honesty, it can’t even get itself together enough to tie its shoelaces properly and set off running. It plays like the first half of a Scorsese movie, all glitz and glamour and seductive crime, hurtling along through an intoxicating underworld. Yet where GoodFellas eventually put its hands up and said, ‘okay, there are consequences, you know,’ War Dogs never quite musters the chutzpah to go in for the kill. There are consequences, of course: the whopping scale of this outright fraud makes it impossible for there not to be. Character arcs are rounded off in dramatically satisfying manner, too, with dollops of moralizing for good measure. Trouble is, there’s a tangible reluctance to outright point and say: ‘These guys were assholes.’
And herein lies War Dogs Achilles’ heel. Packouz and Diveroli are, without, the bro-est bros that Philips has ever dealt with. They lie and cheat and steal, playing governmental corner-cutting off against reckless ambition in order to make themselves filthy stinking rich. In doing so they exploited a pretty hefty loophole in the system, disrupting the international arms trade and exploiting foreign workers in the process. By all accounts, it’s pretty reprehensible. But chastising is much more difficult than indulging, and Philips’ trepidation disrupts the delicate balance required for a satire to really take flight. Instead of bringing the plot strands together to mount an epic critique of the American capitalist system, War Dogs is content to revel in the decadence involved. The result is less of a ‘fuck you’ than a ‘fuck yeah!’
Despite bright spots, then, War Dogs falls shy of being anything particularly memorable. Individual elements often brush with greatness, but the overall sum is considerably less than the often-promising parts. Instead of ruthlessly deconstructing the American Dream, Todd Phillips brought a butter knife to a gunfight.