Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 54 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Language throughout, Drug Use and some Sexual References
Directed by: Todd Phillips
Written by: Stephen Chin, Todd Phillips & Jason Smilovic
(based on the book ARMS AND THE DUDES by Guy Lawson)
Starring: Jonah Hill, Miles Teller, Ana de Armas, J.B. Blanc, Kevin Pollak, Bradley Cooper & Barry Livingston
After directing eight sex comedies and a few documentaries, director Todd Phillips takes a hard left turn into true-crime/political territory with WAR DOGS. This film is based on the true story of Efraim Diveroli and David Packouz, though details have been changed and exaggerated to make a more interesting movie. The film’s strongest elements are its story, the chemistry between Jonah Hill and Miles Teller, and a manic energy that keeps things interesting. However, this movie occasionally suffers from trying too hard to replicate the style of a Martin Scorsese crime flick and never fully becoming as great as it could have been.
David Packouz (Miles Teller) is going nowhere in life. His job as a massage therapist barely pays the bills and attempts to start up his own business have drastically failed. Low on cash and with a child on the way, David reunites with former friend Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), who makes bank as an international arms dealer. David is intoxicated by Efraim’s lavish lifestyle and soon becomes his business partner. However, things get complicated when the two young dudes find themselves in over their heads with dangerous people and the U.S. government. What follows is lots of cash, cocaine, bullets, and illegal activities that forced the U.S. Army to reexamine its contracting procedures.
The premise of WAR DOGS sounds like a lot to take in. After all, what if you know next to nothing about defense contracts? Well, have no fear because the script (written by three people, including Phillips) gently takes the viewer by the hand and lays out details in an easy-to-understand manner. We are also shown how illegal dealings and shady business practices can easily be made behind the curtains. WAR DOGS doesn’t tackle all of this as light-hearted comedic fodder (as the trailers suggest), because the film may cause audience members to think long and hard about what they’ve seen afterwards.
As you might imagine, David and Efraim aren’t good people. The film knows this and makes that clear. We’re watching scumbags get away with doing scumbag things, until it all comes crashing down on their heads. Miles Teller is somewhat sympathetic as David, because he has a family to provide for and seems like the more level-headed nice guy of the two. Jonah Hill is an out-and-out asshole as Efraim. This coke-snorting, back-stabbing, morally bankrupt stain of a human being represents everything that’s wrong with this world….and he also has an obnoxious laugh. Efraim is someone who will take advantage of anything and anyone to make a few extra bucks and Hill plays him to perfection.
As for the supporting cast, there are only three big recurring faces. Ana de Armas (one of the most beautiful women alive) puts in a solid performance as David’s innocent wife. Her relationship is deeply affected by her husband’s newfound career, though she doesn’t exactly get a ton of screen time to show that. The focus is more on the international arms dealing and crimes, whereas David’s personal life is just a subplot. Bradley Cooper plays a threatening guy who works from shadowy places. Cooper is fantastic in the part, but doesn’t receive more than five brief scenes. For those five moments, he completely steals the show. Kevin Pollak is a welcome presence as a local businessman with ties to Efraim and David.
WAR DOGS has a very interesting story and Todd Phillips attempts to execute it with grandiose style, though this doesn’t come off entirely successful. Phillips tries too hard to replicate a Scorsese-crime flick. For example, the movie uses voiceover narration from Miles Teller which isn’t exactly uncommon…but also accompanies this with frequent freeze frames to character’s faces. It’s obvious that Phillips was trying to do GOODFELLAS and CASINO, but with international arms dealing. It sounds great in theory, but the style is unnecessarily forced. The film also has title cards with quotes of dialogue that seem more distracting and pretentious as opposed to cool and artsy.
WAR DOGS is hindered by its wannabe Scorsese style and never becomes as great as it should be. The performances are solid across the board. Some scenes are humorous, while other plot developments are shocking (especially if you don’t know the true story). The pacing moves quickly and never gives the viewer time to get bored. I was interested and entertained throughout. Even if the film never reaches its full potential, one fantastic scene perfectly sums up this entire movie. As the greedy millionaire arms dealers frantically drive away from gunfire, a brave band of underpaid soldiers rush into eliminate the threat. As David and Efraim gleefully dance in the truck, a passing soldier angrily glares and flips them off. That about says it all, right there.