War Dogs and all the images you see in this review are owned by Warner Bros Pictures
Directed by Todd Phillips
The guy who burned out after the FIRST Hangover movie has decided to try and go the Adam McKay route; mainly by making a comedy that ALSO has brains and a message about contemporary America. I mean, at least this will probably be better than giving him time to do Hangover 4: The Revenge. Not only that, but the trailers look like there might be something there to enjoy. Maybe not great, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this mildly amused me the same way Our Brand is Crisis and Whisky Tango Foxtrot did which seem to be covering some of the same ground, albeit with a lot more violence in this one. Can this movie manage to be a fun and engaging exploration into the world of weapons contractors, or is this just a guy who probably peaked seven years ago drying desperately to jump on a bandwagon? Let’s find out!!
The movie follows David Packouz (Miles Teller) who’s some twenty something loser bumming around Miami; working as a massage therapist while trying to get a bed sheet business off the ground. Right off the bat it’s clear that this guy is a Grade-A loser, but opportunity comes knocking when an old friend from middle school Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) moves back to town and has started a weapons contracting firm to sell supplies to the military. David, having nothing else going on and a kid on the way with his girlfriend Iz (Ana de Armas), agrees to work for him despite his… moral objections I guess? Well whatever makes him hesitant about the job quickly falls away as the small company starts winning tiny contracts from the government; slowly building up their clout and influence. Over time though, it’s clear that Efraim wants to go really big really fast and is willing to do whatever it takes to get there, even working with Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper) who’s well known and respected in the industry, but is shady as all hell and is even on the US Terrorist Watch List. Will the two be able to keep their head above water as they sink deeper and deeper into the seedy and dangerous world of illegal gun trading? Will the government turn a blind eye to this duo just so they can get the weapons and ammo they need to fund the war on terror? Are these REALLY the faces of people you would trust with multi-million dollar contracts paid with the use of taxpayer money?
There’s a whole lot to like about this movie as it seems to be the exception to the rule on a lot of my personal pet peeves in movies; mainly that it’s a collage of much better movies, and that it’s BASED ON A TRUE STORY which means I have to do my due diligence and research so I can at least PRETEND I know what the hell I’m talking about. This movie however manages to avoid many of those pitfalls as the concoction here works a lot better than these copycat movies tend to be, and even manages to surpass its influences in certain regards. Hell, even it’s BASED ON A TRUE STORY status manages to complement the film rather than detracts from it; mainly because it’s pretty recent history and it never overshadows the fun that the movie wants to have with its premise. It’s definitely got flaws, especially in regards to its main character David, but it’s a really decent look at the seedy underbelly of The Military Industrial Complex and how it has to operate in order to stay sustainable. Huh. Where have I heard that before…
It’s hard to pin down a specific influence here as there are so many movies it wants to be, but you can probably boil it down to a Lord of War knock off that’s conveyed to us like a less ambitious The Big Short. Now if you haven’t seen Lord of War, you really should as it was back when Nicolas Cage could still be counted on to turn in solid performances in good movies in between the crazy shit (Oh hey! Jared Leto is in that!), and this movie feels like the BASED ON A TRUE STORY version of that fictional movie; the way Goodfellas was the BASED ON A TRUE STORY version of The Godfather. There’s also shades of The Wolf of Wall Street, Scarface (which they make no bones about as they reference it constantly), and even those wacky War on Terror movies like Whiskey Tango Foxtrot or Rock the Kasbah just to make sure all the bases are covered. I think it all works though because each homage as it were kind of plays out in its own isolated moments so that nothing is really tripping over each other and they can concentrate (at least for a time) on doing one thing REALLY well before moving onto the next thing. This actually ends up working as the somewhat disjointed pacing here is fine for a story that encompasses a significant period of time in these guys’ lives and just how many strange situations they find themselves in. At one point they have to personally drive a truck through Baghdad to deliver guns to the US Military, and then ten minutes later they’re in a board room meeting that looks like a deleted scene from The Wolf of Wall Street.
Performances wise, there’s unfortunately not too much to brag about here as our big stars here aren’t doing anything particularly interesting with the exception of Jonah Hill. HOLY SHIT is this guy amazing! We already knew he was a good actor from 21 Jump Street, Superbad, and The Wolf of Wall Street, but this is probably the most unsettling role he’s ever taken and he pulls it off MASTERFULLY! His slicked back hair, penchant for dark shades, and gaudy fashion sense make him unpalatable to look at right off the bat, but his performance sells it; whether it’s frightening ability to act however he needs to in a given situation and which only gets even MORE frightening when we get the brief glimpses of the monster underneath all that manufactured charm. The icing on the cake of course is his unnerving and skin crawling laugh that he does throughout the movie just so you don’t forget exactly who we’re dealing with!
Unfortunately, he’s the only real highlight here as everyone else barely peeks out from beneath his shadow. Supporting characters such as Ana de Armas’s Iz and Bradly Cooper’s Henry Girard barley do a damn thing in the movie so there’s not much a performance to critique, and while actors like Patrick St Espirit, Shaun Toub, and Gabriel Spahiu actually DO work very well in their bit roles, they’re not in the movie long enough to carry the weak performances from the big name stars, especially Miles Teller. I don’t know if this guy is gonna flame out at some point (he at least shows a fair bit of competence in selecting movies aside from Fantastic Four) but this is just another example of him being amazingly underwhelming as an actor. I don’t know if I can pin everything on him though because the role itself doesn’t call for much from him. The movie makes the mistake of having him play the audience avatar everyman role, and they forget to give us a reason to like him. Say what you will about psychotic Jonah Hill, at least he’s compelling to watch on screen AND he’s proactive in the story. Miles Teller is a do nothing character who doesn’t have any strong convictions, doesn’t fight for anything, and yet still grumbles his way through every scene in here; surprised every time he’s asked to do something and then does nothing about it other than to piss and moan. I’d liken it to Shia Labeouf’s character in Lawless (oh hey! Another movie this wants to be!), but at least his character made decisions and affected the plot! Hell, let’s go ahead and make yet another Wolf of Wall Street comparison! Jordan Belfort, as portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio, was boisterous, ambitious, angry as fuck, and absolutely full of himself; all of which are character traits that are interesting to watch an actor play with, even if the character is reprehensible. Compare that to Miles Teller’s Character David who’s not all that smart, never comes up with an idea on his own, acts wishy washy whenever he’s presented with a dilemma before deferring to Jonah Hill, and frankly avoids making any decision if he can avoid it. Where DiCaprio is charismatic and charming, Teller is not. Where DiCaprio comes off as extremely resourceful but his own worst enemy, Teller is boring and never takes control of his own character arc until the end, and by that point it’s too little too late. He’s just no fun to watch on screen and being the POV character as well as the narrator, he ends up being a dead weight on the movie.
As far as the movie’s BASED ON A TRUE STORY bonafides, it’s actually pretty close to the truth and the changes they made are well chosen to keep the plot moving and to keep this from getting bogged down. For example, there’s a third guy in the real life story (Alex Podrizki) who went to Albania instead of David, but combining those two roles together makes sense to keep us up to date on what’s going on in Albania while also not complicating this with too many characters. There are some changes though that aren’t perfect and after reading the true story* kind of put the film in a slightly less authentic light. For instance, the way they get caught is TOTALLY different than it is in the movie. I won’t go too far into it, but how they get caught in this movie is something that was UNSUCCESFUL in catching them in the real life story due to direct intervention from a US diplomat, and not only do I think it would have been more interesting to further muddy the waters of the United State government’s culpability in everything that happened, but there’s an odd sort of moral to the story that’s implied with THIS ending… despite the fact that it didn’t ACTUALLY work in the real story. It’s just kinda odd. That, and there’s also the fact that David DID NOT go back to being a massage therapist after falling out with AEY and went to start his own weapons contracting firm. It feels like they’re trying to spin David as THE GOOD GUY in this which is disingenuous to the story and in fact hurts his character as it’s yet another example of him not having any ambition of his own or any real aspirations. He didn’t have to found another shady company, but the skills he acquired during his tenure at AEY could have gotten him a job anywhere he wanted! Instead, he takes the job that he himself hated and looked down upon (and the movie itself seems to feel the same way considering how many sex work jokes they make) because… reasons I guess.
I’ve probably names at least half a dozen movies that this one reminds me of, but you know what it REALLY feels like? Kill the Irishman; a BLATANT knock off of every other gangster movie out there that’s brought up by some decent effects work and a fantastic performance by Ray Stevenson. That’s this movie in a nutshell, though I might have to give this one the edge because it looks really nice while Kill the Irishman is decidedly low budget. I usually don’t have a problem with people using elements from other movies (in a non-copyright infringement way of course) if the result is a really good movie that evokes what we loved about those original features. This movie isn’t all that original, and outside of some isolated moments, it doesn’t really rise above the other films it’s trying to emulate. Still, it’s a fun ride and probably worth seeing at some point; maybe even in the theaters if these kind of movies appeal to you. Now all we need is for WB to get rid of Jared Leto as the Joker, and hire Jonah Hill instead!
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