“War Dogs,” the most recent film from “Hangover” trilogy director Todd Phillips, chronicles the loosely true story of Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) and David Packouz (Miles Teller), childhood friends who in their early 20s became arms dealers for the U.S. Army. It explores how it was even possible for two nobodies to break into weapon contracting on such a massive scale and the duo’s eventual awarding of a $300 million contract near the beginning of the Afghanistan conflict.
With “The Wolf of Wall Street,” Martin Scorsese ushered in a new era of cinema of excess.
He plastered sex, drugs and debauchery on the screen, and even though they resulted from illegal and manipulative tactics, he never outright condemned any of it. Just think about how many bros walked away from that movie with Jordan Belfort as their new hero. Scorsese set a new trend for bigger, more maximalist presentation of topics that at their core are evil and shady, so as to gloss over those aspects of it. “The Big Short,” on the other hand, was a sort of anti-excess film—its whole purpose was to condemn the lavish corruption it showed.
“War Dogs” falls somewhere in between.
At first, “War Dogs” leans heavily into the territory of “The Big Short,” using the first half of the film to explain the broken system for military contracting. This is when the film is at its best, because it feels like it actually has something to say, rather than simply trying to entertain its audience. Unfortunately, it fails to maintain this as it transitions into full-blown popcorn entertainment in the latter half of the film.
This is the ultimate failure of the movie: It wants to be “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “The Big Short,” but it can’t be both. They’re vastly different films with different agendas, and combining the two is impossible.
Hill gives his best “Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort” impression, but it never evolves past being a manic asshole. Teller is serviceable, but his character doesn’t have much personality. A huge issue with the writing is that the movie’s only attempt to develop him is through his wife and daughter. Writers need to stop solely using female characters as props to develop their male leads.
“War Dogs” isn’t very funny either. Phillips is known for his lowbrow bro humor, and it really shines here. “Retard” and “f—” are thrown around without any respect for the weight those words carry. Much of the supposed humor comes off as nasty and predatory of minority groups.
The whole movie is a slog. The second half is way too long, the writing is garbage and it’s never as clever or revealing as it tries to be. Phillips is a capable director and it shows here, but he also can’t help but bite from the style of Scorsese—the arrest scene from this movie is almost a carbon copy of the one from “Wolf of Wall Street.” Perhaps the greatest downfall of “War Dogs” is that it’s just a morally reprehensible film. It uses its “based on a true story” tag in a gross, smug way, like Michael Bay’s similarly reprehensible “Pain and Gain.” Throw in an annoying constant voice over from Teller and you have one of the worst movies in a summer full of bad movies.