The shoes of “The Big Short” and “Wolf of Wall Street” fit the tag team of Miles Teller and Jonah Hill but the boys can’t quite fill them.
Let’s talk about genre. Genre, in most cases, defines not only a film’s subject matter, but the accompaniment of tropes, bells, and whistles that come with. In a basic sense War Dogs is a crime comedy-drama. In a less direct, perhaps more informative (certainly not more nuanced) way War Dogs is a true-crime story turned character dramedy by way of The Wolf of Wall Street and The Big Short, to name recent success stories. It fits snugly into the sub-genre, wherein the most compelling subversions of the film come, but that is also where the weakness lays most exposed.
War Dogs is the full length adaptation of Guy Lawson’s Rolling Stone article-turned book “Arms and the Dudes,” which exposed the truth behind a two-man gun running scheme supplying weapons for the US military during the Iraq War. David Packouz (Miles Teller) reunites with high school troublemaker Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), who taught him the trade of selling military supplies on the internet circa 2005. With a child on the way, David has no choice but to give up massage therapy and commit to a life of legal — however fairly dubious — sales of automatic weapons, grenades and kevlar. The film places itself firmly amid the Bush administration and uses the escalation and time period to take our salesman to Baghdad and beyond. Like the recent films, War Dogs pulls from, things soon get very out-of-hand and moderately illegal.
From humble beginnings in Miami Beach, War Dogs becomes a globetrotting adventure, taking Packouz and Diveroli from Baghdad to Vegas to Jordan. The variety is appreciated, but doesn’t feel like the end-goal, simply a product of the story. Todd Philips’ greatest directorial accomplishment was finding a story that fit this framework. The subject matter lends itself easily to bombastic chase scenes across the middle east, as well as some real drama. Most of this comes near the latter half.
War Dogs takes a while to get going. Philips’ vision takes stylistically from Scorsese, while lacking the polish. Teller can’t deliver voiceover on quite the level of Liotta or DiCaprio, but his attempts feel most feeble near the start, where the film is littered with exposition. The script doesn’t help, with every interaction between Teller and Ana de Armas (who plays his partner Iz) and Hill becoming a sisyphus-like effort, pushing the ball up the hill until it gets rolling. Once it does, however, the film becomes engaging on multiple levels.
Jonah Hill is great. He gives Diveroli a livelihood not many characters in the movie have. In fact, until his first appearance I feared War Dogs was hopelessly doomed as derivative drivel. Hill’s Diveroli is perfect because he transcends reality. The words “based on a true story” allow it to be so, but honestly War Dogs takes plenty of liberties. But by making the lead, and perhaps the films biggest villain, a comically large parody of mid-2000s douchebag-ery the more ridiculous scenes fall into place. Hill is only ever upstaged by a ragged Bradley Cooper, who’s few scenes are genuinely unsettling.
What makes War Dogs stand out is not the moment to moment polish — this waxes and wanes as much as most Hollywood biopics — but the backdrop. Gun-running in itself is as interesting as the financial crises of ’08, but the longview War Dogs takes on the Bush administration is something we have not been able to put enough distance between just yet. War, in the traditional sense, is an economy. War, in a traditional sense, is also fading into the past. The fact that War Dogs can feel like an untapped part of recent history makes it all the more relevant. At a time when America was a country in support of war, what Packouz and Diveroli were doing was fundamentally patriotic. It brings into questions American values during the Iraq war, especially in wake of the 2016 election. Taken at face value, the moral dilemma may not be one to glance at more than once, but in the context of the time — a context so utterly important to the film — these boys from Miami aren’t the villains Jordan Belfort is, they are antiheroes.
It is in this impossible realm that War Dogs exists as a stunningly fine film. Mediocre on base levels such as screenwriting and a severe underutilization of composer Cliff Martinez. It is the rare case that a movie is more than the sum of its parts, but Phillips has pulled together a project that somehow subverts its genre trappings, while gunning so hard for a specific style and polish it cannot attain. But hell, somehow the point sticks.
War Dogs hits theaters on August 19th.