So, you know, what if like Martin Scorsese directed Lord of War, right – but like, he was dropped on his head when he was a baby?
I imagine that must’ve been the elevator pitch for War Dogs (though I’d like to think that the working title was Dude, Where’s My Armaments?) because it really does just come off as a mishmash of every trick and tool from the Scorsese bag of filmmaking that has been reused and remixed ever since he nailed that particular brand of stylish, energetic epics with the likes of Goodfellas and has continued with equal – or arguably greater – effect in the recent Wolf of Wall Street. It’s an easy go-to reference point, and it’s one that has never truly been utilized in a way that didn’t come across as an empty, half-baked homage, the sole exception being Boogie Nights.
In what is easily the most gratuitous and embarrassing attempt at aping Scorsese’s style since American Hustle, War Dogs comes in from director and co-writer, Todd Phillips, known for Old School, the Hangover trilogy, and that dollar store, dumpster fire version of Planes, Trains & Automobiles that nobody seems to remember. Starring Jonah Hill and Miles Teller as old friends (Efraim Diveroli and David Packouz, respectively) who reunite and go into business together. That business being – arms dealing.
See, after the arms race of the Cold War ended, it left many nations with an absurd stock of weapons, ammunition and various military equipment, equipment that eventually began falling into the arms trading market. When the US government invaded Iraq and Afghanistan and planned on arming their militias, they became in need of extra guns and ammo, but since the government would rather not deal directly with the shady dealers, they put out contracts for middle men who can get the job done. Most of these contracts are generally done by big companies like Northrop Grumman, Lockheed or BAE Systems, but there are also contracts are are much smaller in scale that don’t really interest the big guys and that is where the bottom feeders – or “war dogs” – come in to snatch government contracts and make bank. Diveroli and Packouz were the partners in AEY Inc and they built fortune and reputation by getting these smaller contracts, but they decide to go big when they put a bid out for a Pentagon contract that awarded them almost $300 million to provide arms and a shit ton of ammo, a deal in which they quickly find themselves in way over their heads, leading them to cheat and lie their way through their contract fulfillment.
Funny how that turns out because it is also Todd Phillips who finds himself in way over his head with the material. He applies his general crass dudebro attitude which makes sense in terms of how he approaches his comedies, but with this, it’s clear that he has no idea what to do, what to say or even how to say it. He brings in a talented cast and crew who throw a lot of energy into what is a totally well made movie, but the flashiness is never in service of anything. There is no depth or underlying humanity to the film, leaving zero resonance. The film itself seems to not have a consistent point-of-view when it comes to the character, their actions and the deeply flawed system that rewarded their awful behavior. It’s the kind of movie that will throw out quotes like “God bless Dick Cheney’s America” and expect that alone to simply fill in all holes where all the thought and thematic throughline is supposed to be. It even goes to the point where even at the end, when we hear what punishments the characters get when when the FBI finally gets them. The punishments are so light and slap-on-the-wrist level that it feels like it should be a far bigger deal than the film is treating it because it’s forgotten about as soon as it’s mentioned. So, even when it presents itself with something worth commenting and engaging with, it completely ignores it in favor for lazy jokes and boring exposition.
Everything this film gets wrong in terms of presentation, tone, and perspective is basically what I feel most thought when they came out of the 2013 Michael Bay film, Pain & Gain. As a pretty passionate defender of that film, I argue that it contains the one thing that War Dogs lacks, and that is irony. War Dogs plays far too sincere for its own good, it neither owns the horribleness of its main characters nor does it challenge the toxicity of their worldview in a way that works either cinematically or dramatically. It constantly feels unsure of what it wants us to feel. I don’t know if I’m supposed to root for the characters, detest them, empathize with them. It tries to have its cake and eat it too by cheaply making Packouz seem like the innocent one who got dragged in a bad situation by the sociopathic Diveroli. After all, he’s the one with the wife and newborn daughter, he’s the one who really needs the money because his work as a masseuse didn’t pan out as he had hoped, and he’s the one that has a cameo near the beginning of the film (bald guy on the guitar); Diveroli does not have a cameo. He is the one that comes out the worst, the single agent of chaos that is to blame for all the ways their enterprise turns sour. It’s almost too afraid to admit that they are both awful people who are caught up in their greed while they exploit the system that allows them to flourish.
The performances are decent, most of it relying on the admittedly natural chemistry between Miles Teller and Jonah Hill. However, since Packouz is written to be as safe of an audience stand in as possible, Teller is mostly a blank. Hill is really the only one that leaves some impression due to his absolute commitment in playing total nut, he’s clearly the only one having fun with the material. Ana de Armas is fine as Packouz’s wife, Iz, but she is stuck playing the most standard and uninspired “concerned wife” archetype, seemingly forced to channel her own frustration and desperation to find something interesting to do. Bradley Cooper is serviceable as Henry Girard, an international arms dealer that crosses paths with our main duo, but for a character that is introduced like he was supposed to be a big deal, he doesn’t do much to leave a looming presence when he’s not around.
I always thought Todd Phillips has what it takes to be a really good filmmaker, and War Dogs is obviously meant to be the one to prove it, especially in the wake of Adam McKay’s success with The Big Short, but he has dropped the ball in a pretty big way. Not only does the film artlessly pull from various influences, it does it in a way that completely misunderstands why those stylistic choices were so effective in the first place. Be it the constant use of freeze frames followed by monotonous voiceover explaining what’s happening to the pointless and pretentious chapter quotes that are all later repeated by Diveroli (except the last time when Iz says it for some reason) to the trite and obvious soundtrack choices that are littered throughout the film. I swear the next filmmaker that unironically uses the song “Fortunate Son” needs to be given that “walk of atonement” from Game of Thrones. To make it worse, the music often overpowers an otherwise really cool score from Cliff Martinez, which should be a punishable offense. The filmmakers’ ambitions were clearly far beyond their grasp and what ultimately came out is an ugly, toxic exercise that celebrates the actions of the idiotic characters. Diveroli is shown to have an obsession with the film Scarface, he often quotes it, has a big poster, etc, but he clearly doesn’t understand it, he doesn’t comprehend the nuances, and he doesn’t get the tragic undercurrents. And that combined with the film’s official poster, which is a very literal, unironic recreation of the Scarface poster, shows that the filmmakers might not get it either. 30/100