Thoroughly entertaining, after a slow start, the film provides the middle ground between the brawn of The Wolf of Wall Street and the integrity of The Big Short.
Thank goodness Todd Phillips quit while he was ahead with the Hangover Trilogy, because with War Dogs, we have a surprisingly mature and provocative film that’s less about the penis jokes and more about the joke of how arms deals were handled in the US during the Iraq War.
It’s not without a moral sensibility, provided by the narration of average Joe David Packouz (Miles Teller), who hooks up with serial bad influence and old Junior High friend Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill). In-between jobs and with his wife Iz (Ana de Armas) expecting, David embarks on a crash course in arms dealing with US military contracts provided by the repulsive Efraim, who is exploiting the market just as much as he is exploiting his old friend. But, inevitably, their insane dream becomes a sober reality, casting doubt over the two’s friendship, as well as David’s relationship with Iz.
The film was not as funny as expected, and relies on the hilarity of Jonah Hill’s carefully crafted laugh to provide comedy for the first third of the film, which, to be honest, it does, at a stretch. Admittedly, I went in expecting to watch The Hangover, but instead got something altogether more interesting and coherent, which did not rely on the laughs, but was amplified by them. The editing and soundtrack were as sharp as anything, and it felt very much like recent hits The Social Network, with all the angst and betrayal, The Wolf of Wall Street, without the exhausting misogyny, and The Big Short, but with guns. Yet, of all these based-on-a-true-story tales, War Dogs may prove to be the most versatile and satisfying. For one, this story boasts real action sequences and danger to get the heart pumping for more than just another tense meeting in a office. And you can forgive David for his naivety in a way you cannot with many of the modern monsters portrayed in these films.
Hill more than makes up for the morality of Teller’s David, in all his terrible and fake tan glory. Great performances were given all round, including Bradley Cooper’s boogeyman dealer Henry Girard, yet Ana de Armas’ Iz, who is as sporadically present as Cooper’s character, is under-developed, and her nickname provides a false sense of intimacy we simply don’t achieve.
The finale of the film does not leave us insulted either, proving it to be more than just a display of reckless abandon that can wear on an audience. We are left pondering the moral integrity of all the key players, as we ask ourselves whether they are simply opportunists, or the antagonists in their own story.
War Dogs (2016), directed by Todd Phillips, is distributed in the UK by Warner Bros. Pictures. Certificate 15.