War Dogs: Too Much and Not Enough, by Rudie Obias
With the summer movie-going season about to wrap up, it’s actually quite refreshing to watch a movie that is made for adults without any superheroes or mindless big explosions. War Dogs marks a maturation in filmmaking and style for co-writer/director Todd Phillips, yet still explores the same “bro” and out-of-control party themes that the 45-year-old director has taken on before in the Hangover films, Old School, and Road Trip. It works mixes that with the more prestige-bro ethos of The Big Short, Goodfellas, and Boiler Room.
Based on a Rolling Stone article titled “Arms and the Dudes” by Guy Lawson, War Dogs follows David Packouz (Miles Teller), a college dropout in his early twenties trying to find a big score while floating from job to job. When David reunites with his old middle school best friend Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), the two immediately rekindle their friendship, as David begins to work for Efraim as a small-time arms dealer for the U.S. Government, which is turning to smaller-scale operations as a cost-saving measure. David and Efraim look for the “scraps” that bigger weapon manufacturers lookover, which is why they’re considered “War Dogs” in the war and defense industry.
They quickly rise from a cramped one room office to mid-level arms dealers in a matter of three years. With the help of Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper), a seedy dealer who is on the Terror Watch List, David and Efraim find themselves working towards one big score that can make all their wildest dreams come true – a $300 million defense contract with the government. War Dogs starts off being about the business of war and steers into how two twenty-somethings can profit off of it with very little education and a lot of charisma.
Stylistically, War Dogs is dynamic without being confusing and manic. Phillips showed a knack for this type of filmmaking with Hangover trilogy, with an eye for making a crazy and outlandish situation palatable for general audiences. One could accuse War Dogs of being too on-the-nose with its style and music choices, but I think it’s part of Todd Phillips’ appeal to the general public. He really doesn’t want anyone to miss out on what’s going on in the film, which might turn off snootier moviegoers. There’s a certain maturity and attention that Phillips gives to each set piece and moment, but I think the film runs into a stumbling block with its point-of-view. It doesn’t seem to have one.
It’s unclear if we’re supposed to be sympathetic to David and Efraim or if we’re supposed to cheer them on as they grow and grow as a successful business. War Dogs is not a satire or a cautionary tale. It’s just a bunch of “dude bros” who want to make a quick buck and later quickly get in over their heads, in the same vein as Brian De Palma’s Scarface, which is referenced throughout. I’m not sure if we’re suppose to take anything more from the film than that. The film injects some political point-of-view every now and then, but it just doesn’t seem to add up to much.
Teller and Hill both give outstanding performances, but it could’ve been stronger if the film was deeper itself. While I do consider War Dogs one of Todd Phillips’ best movies, it could’ve been a better one if it had something on its mind. Hopefully, we can see more dramatic and mature work from Phillips in the future, but for now, War Dogs is a good turn in his career that just doesn’t go far enough.