“War Dogs” (2016)
Running Time: 114 minutes
Director: Todd Phillips
Featuring: Jonah Hill, Miles Teller, Kevin Pollak, Bradley Cooper
David Packouz: [voice over] “My name is David Packouz. I’m twenty-two years old and I’m an international arms dealer. Six months ago I was a massage therapist in Miami Beach, and now here I was with my best friend from junior high.”
Post “The Big Short” (2015), which served as Director/Screenwriter Adam MacKay’s coming out party as a legitimate and bankable film-maker I am sure there were many comedy directors who thought “How hard can that be?” – get a couple of A/B list actors, have an A list actor make a memorable appearance, have a marginally interesting plot and frame it around one of the best know rags to riches to comeuppance stories around, in our case the DePalma classic “Scarface” (1982), and it will be a commercial and critical success! Is this the case with the recently released “War Dogs” (2016), directed by Todd Phillips, whose biggest success so far has been the “Hangover Trilogy” (2009 – 2013).
This film is adapted from a Rolling Stone Magazine article “Arms and Dudes”, that tells the story of two wannabe arms dealers, Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) and David Packouz (Miles Teller) who in their early twenties stumbled onto a US$300 million arms contract for the US Government. The film charts their come from nowhere small business to heading a massive deal that ended up eating its own tail. The boys were out of their league and so were clueless to how international arms deals actually work thus paying a heavy price – sort of. It is worth noting that the story is told from the point of view of Packouz who comes across as a naive young guy seduced by Diveroli into doing things he would not have dreamed of prior to their meeting. That side of the film is a little difficult to come to turns with but it does (luckily for the director) paint Diveroli as a lose cannon who lies to everyone willingly, and just ploughs his way blindly through situations while portraying Packouz as a kind of anti-hero. The extent to which Diveroli is painted as the villain in contrast to a real arms dealer, played by Bradley Cooper, is seen as a kind of good guy with morale’s who sells weapons just to get out of this house – this is a person who owns up to being on the US terror watch list and is not able to do business with the US government. Hmmm, a little Hollywood reworking to make reality fit the story – and yes it is based on a true story, based being the operative word.
This is definitely a film made for a certain type of audience, one who likes laughs, guns and the three-act structure. I mean when Diveroli explains to Packouz what he does and how he operates he has to do it three times just to get the point across to him and albeit the audience. It really is not rocket science to say they are middlemen in a transaction, they buy low and sell high, but instead of the stock market they are trying to short, it is the US government – but they don’t get away with it.
The performances that Phillips gets out of Hill and Teller are good, but I have to admit it seems like Hill is strolling through this movie, and is not really trying to prove himself beyond what he has shown in earlier better movies. Hill started his career in broad comedies and moved effortlessly (it seemed) into top shelf dramas, earning two Oscar nominations in just a few years, he has shown he is one of the new breed of actors ably mixing genres with ease. Teller on the other hand has a handful of roles that he stands out in and just when he seems like he may be starting to make a name for himself he make a big budgeted embarrassing flop. Teller in the film holds his own against Hill, but is too much a passive character to really sympathize with, which is a shame because it could have been a better role if he had more than one shade to his character.
I think the film reached for the skies but misses a few beats (the music choices are pretty blatant and obvious and I think were meant to lighten the mood, but fail completely) overall you will go to this film and have a few laughs, but there is really nothing beyond the surface which for a Friday night with Jonah Hill is probably no bad thing.