Director Todd Phillips, a man generally responsible for slob comedies like The Hangover and Old School, goes a more serious, satirical route with War Dogs. The results are mixed, but ultimately entertaining.
Based on an article in Rolling Stone that described real-life gun runners and the way they bilked the government and screwed each other over, the film plays out as a sort of Wolf of Wall Street with weapons and Albania instead of stocks and the financial district.
Contributing to that Wolf vibe would be Jonah Hill as Efraim Diveroli, a diabolical, narcissistic weapons dealer who puts profit before morality and friendship. Even though Hill throws in an annoying laugh that should've been discouraged, the core of his performance is still funny, and brutal when it needs to be. He continues to show he's far more than a giggle-getter. He's a real deal actor.
Miles Teller plays his partner, David Packouz, a massage therapist who can't keep his career in line and needs to straighten out fast, especially because he has a kid on the way with wife, Iz (Ana de Armas, far less scary here than she was torturing Keanu Reeves in Knock Knock).
The story focuses on one big deal the two try to broker involving millions of ammunition rounds in an Albanian warehouse. The U.S. government under Cheney and Bush had basically put arms trading deals out to anybody who dared to bid on them, and these guys dove in. They run into all kinds of trouble, some of it predictable. You'll find yourself guessing what happens next at times but, hey, much of this actually happened. It just shows how utterly stupid and simplistic the whole system was, and how these dopes just walked into all kinds of traps. Their predictably and willingness to chase a profit at all costs walked hand in hand with their carelessness.
Phillips, like Adam McKay before him with The Big Short, makes a strong and convincing transition into dramatic satire. Yes, the film has its laughs, but this is by most standards a drama, one that the likes of Scorsese would try to tackle. Mind you, Phillips is no Scorsese, but he does make a good-looking movie containing realistic and strong performances. While he's going down some familiar story paths here, he does so in a way that comes off as stylistically strong.
The film is at its best during a sequence where Efraim and David must drive a relatively small shipment of guns through the Triangle of Death and into the heart of Iraq. It's during this stretch that the movie is funny, thrilling, and even a little scary. The parts before and after are often riveting and engaging in other ways, but not nearly as fast paced or entertaining. Hey, it's a plus that the great sequence is in there, even if it makes the rest of the film look slightly inferior.
Hill put on a lot of weight again for his role, to an extent that could make his fans a little anxious. He's seesawing with the whole weight thing like two kids on the playground after three bowls of Apple Jacks chased with five cups of pure cane sugar and a gallon of Coke. I saw him on a recent interview show, and he's looking much healthier again. Still, his adherence to the Robert De Niro/Christian Bale School of Body Acting must be taxing the ticker.
Teller bounces back impressively after last year's awful Fantastic Four, giving a performance more in line with is awesome work in Whiplash. He's also been tied into the abysmal Divergent franchise these last few years. He's been in some crap, but anybody denouncing this guy needs to look no further than Whiplash, The Spectacular Now and this film for examples of his talent.
War Dogs isn't a great movie, but it's one of the summer's better movies. This summer, in short, stinks like hell. I just thought I'd get that into this last paragraph as a means of expressing my general disgust. Sorry, I got off track a bit. War Dogs is a good movie. It truly is.