Director Todd Phillips doesn’t exactly have a wide range. Since his debut movie Road Trip (2000) he has gone on to mine bro culture while creating some of Greek Rows most revered figures. Frank the Tank (Old School,) Alan, Stu and Phil (The Hangover) are synonymous with dorm room walls and frat parties, sure to be part of the lexicon for as long as boys will be boys. Sure, you can pass judgment on his lack of range but Phillips has a certain lane and one could argue he’s been one of the most influential filmmakers in said lane of the last 15 years. So it’s understandable that he’d want to branch out, try something that doesn’t pair two pre-adolescent brains in a zany adventure of self-discovery.
Well Phillips isn’t exactly reaching out of his comfort zone with War Dogs – a zany adventure that pairs two pre-adolescent brains in a zany adventure of self-discovery – oh but it’s a true story so, you know, they remind you of that.
Miles Teller is Dave Packouz – a floundering late-twenties massage therapist in Miami with few prospects and a baby on the way. One afternoon while attending a friend’s funeral he runs into an old friend – Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) – a gold chain clad douchebag back from running an online gun racket with his uncle in California. The boys get to talking and it turns out Efraim’s been ripped off by his uncle and returned home to open his own shop.
After a few drug-fueled meetups Efraim pitches Dave to quit the massage biz (and his new gig – selling wholesale sheets to nursing homes) and work for him. The pitch is simple – after invading Iraq the Bush/Cheney White House opened up government arms contracts to any and all comers. If you had the means you could fulfill orders for the military, you could. Guns, ammo, helmets, vests…shit if you could get a tank they’d probably buy it.
It seems forced liberation is a tougher nut to crack than shock and awe and this photo:
But many – including Efraim and Dave exploited it. They started small – fulfilling tiny contracts that eventually added up to millions for the duo. Eventually this opened up opportunities for bigger contracts, multi-million dollar deliveries of weapons to Iraq and Afghanistan.
If this sounds like a meaty setup it absolutely is. Efraim and Dave’s exploits is The Wolf of Wall Street meets Lord of War with all the fixins’. Then why is Phillips film so lifeless?
First is his incessant use of voiceover. Teller’s Dave constantly interrupts the onscreen action with some of the worst, most asinine asides you could ask for. If you’re excited to watch two guys smuggle Beretta’s through Iraq’s triangle of death then you’re in luck. If, while that action is happening, an obnoxious voice pops in to say, “This is crazy, I’m driving through Iraq with guns from Italy” than oh boy, getcha popcorn ready. Phillips never relents with this narration and while his more than capable camera frames the action nicely he can’t help but explain all of it through Dave.
War Dogs tone shifts wildly throughout and while Phillips clearly hoped to find more in common with Scorcese he finds far more in common with Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain – a similar rags to riches satire that attempted to deride the perils of capitalism but ended up – as all Bay movies do – blowing everything up.
With a stronger focus War Dogs could have been the preeminent critique of W’s middle-eastern exploits. And despite Jonah Hill’s best efforts (he is actually very good here) it amounts to nothing more than boys playing with guns.