Lock and load, but don’t get too trigger-happy – Todd Phillips and company aim for comedy-drama gold but sadly miss their target.
⭐ ⭐ ½
David Packouz (Miles Teller) is a Miami Beach massage therapist who’s made a bad investment in unwanted linen sheets; a decision made worse when his girlfriend Iz (Ana de Armas) announces that she’s pregnant. Running into his old school buddy Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) at a funeral, he learns that Efraim has made a living exploiting a little-known government loophole that allows small businesses to place bids on U.S. military contracts. Desperate for money to support his family, David teams up with Efraim and the pair become war dogs – independent middle-men buying weapons and equipment cheap and selling them at an inflated price, all without ever seeing the merchandise.
There’s a very interesting story somewhere in the midst of War Dogs, but sadly Todd Phillips (The Hangover Trilogy) – unlike his arms peddling anti-heroes – hasn’t quite managed to milk it for all it’s worth. It seemed at first glance as if the comedy director was going for his “take me seriously” moment, embedding his brand of bromantic hijinks into a girthy true tale to create an entertaining, eye-opening romp worthy of awards recognition; not unlike Anchorman director Adam McKay did with The Big Short. It has Scorsese-size ambitions, and there is the odd occasion where War Dogs feels like this is an almost achievable goal; disappointingly, it squashes its chances of succeeding The Wolf of Wall Street on account of its frustrating laziness.
Most of the film’s problems can be boiled down to its creative decisions – or lack thereof. Structure and story-wise, it’s one of the oldest clichés in the book. Miles Teller narrates, opening on his protagonist who’s in over his head, kidnapped and staring down the barrel of a gun. Then we backtrack a few years to his humble beginnings, and his climb up the ranks from rags to riches in through-and-through Scorsese fashion, until the inevitable climactic point of pandemonium is met. It’s a story we’ve seen far too many times, and the true material it’s sourced from isn’t fresh enough to make War Dogs feel like it’s reinventing the wheel.
Phillips can’t seem to decide what genre he’s in either. There are certainly moments early on that raise a few chuckles, but despite being sold as humour-heavy in the trailer, the laughs dry up; fans expecting another Hangover might be surprised by how little comedy there is. Conversely, it isn’t weighty enough to cut it as a drama either – we’re told the stakes and danger is high, but we never really feel it; there’s little emotional heft and our characters aren’t likeable enough to care all that much for. Again, it’s simply too light a touch for what could have, and should have been a complex picture.
Miles Teller continues to do little to prove his star power post-Whiplash, perhaps still struggling to match the sheer intensity of that role. Jonah Hill delivers the better performance of the pair, his moral-less entrepreneur amusing as he cackles wickedly and makes unpredictable moves. But we’ve seen this dramatic role from Hill before, and much better, in Moneyball and (once again) The Wolf of Wall Street. Supposedly Jesse Eisenberg and Shia LaBeouf were once attached to these roles, though it’s hard to imagine them faring much better under Phillips’ rote direction.
What we’re left with is an entertaining enough popcorn pic. The boys are shown to idolise and channel Scarface – if only Phillips had the balls to make them as ruthlessly compelling as the Cuban crime lord.
War Dogs is available in Australian cinemas from August 18
Image courtesy of Roadshow Films