Cast: Jonah Hill, Miles Teller, Bradley Cooper
Director: Todd Phillips
Rating: Three stars
TOO ZANY TO BE TRUE
War Dogs is defined by its excess. The “true story” that the film is based on is so preposterous that just comprehending it requires a suspension of disbelief. Two twenty-something Americans play the country’s defence establishment so masterfully that they become its go-to arms dealers for Beretta guns and AK-47 rounds. Todd Phillips, director of The Hangover Trilogy, knows how to find humour in the most unexpected of places. So, at one point, he sends his protagonists, David Packouz (Miles Teller) and Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), driving through Iraq. The back of their truck is perilously filled with guns. Though this may really never have happened, we’ll give Phillips his exaggeration. There is, after all, a restraint to his excess. The trouble is the director doesn’t make up his mind. Searing political comment and a buddy comedy, War Dogs is always one, not the other.
The opening scene of War Dogs begins with Albanian gangsters pointing a gun at David Packouz’s head. As the film goes back in time, you’re certain that its quiet is waiting to be disturbed. A massage therapist who dreams of selling his quality bed sheets to old age homes, David encounters Efraim, his childhood best friend, at a funeral. They score drugs, get high, and Efraim lets David on to his cunning plan. In Dick Cheney’s America and George Bush’s Iraq, almost anyone can land himself an arms deal with the US military. The cost of kitting up a solder is $17,500 and Efraim wants a piece of that pie. David, who has protested the war with his wife, is morally averse to playing any part in this trade, but Efraim is quick to assure him, “I’m not pro-war. The war is happening. This is pro-money.”
Jonah Hill, who puts in the performance of his career here, brings to mind his Wolf of Wall Street (2013) on many occasions. Like Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort, David and Efraim do all it takes to beat the system – they scheme, they scam, they forge documents. Efraim snorts cocaine off his office table. He and David walk into a high level meeting stoned. Big time arrives with a 300 million dollar deal to supply arms to Afghanistan and it is the arrival of Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper) that augurs an undoing. The Great American Dream will turn into a nightmare. You just wait for its end.
If The Big Short (2015) was a reminder of how avarice bankrupted the world, War Dogs tracks the journey of bullets that often kill invented enemies. The problem is that the film is so busy trying to be a zany comedy that it never allows itself to explore fully the darkness it hints at. There’s obviously something macho about being a gun runner in the Middle East, but even when David and Efraim find themselves in the thick of its action, the director banks on glib one-liners for his impact and not the absurdity of the circumstance his characters inhabit. The humour could’ve been blacker.
War Dogs will certainly hold your attention all the way through. The only problem is that once the laughs have petered out and the going gets weird, you might feel dismayed that its weird characters fail to turn pro. The film and Efraim both reference Scarface (1983). Unlike that Al Pacino-starrer, however, War Dogs cushions the ground where David and Efraim fall. You don’t feel bad for them. Though a “true story” doesn’t always ensure comeuppance, the moral arch of this film is predictable. As good guys, David and Efraim are not good enough. As bad guys, they ought to have been better.