If War Dogs, The Hangover director Todd Phillips‘s new war dramedy is meant to entertain in his distinctive bromance-worshipping way, then it serves its purpose as it follows the highs and lows of a volatile male-on-male relationship. Indeed, it does rely heavily on its stars Jonah Hill and Miles Teller’s chemistry, plus a generous dollop of Hill expectation as the actor has made ‘cuddly’ sociopathic characters his new forte.
David Packouz (Teller) is a male masseuse for the rich who is trying to get enough money together before wife Iz (Ana de Armas) gives birth. When he sinks all their savings into a stock pile of luxury cotton sheets and fails to sell these to Miami’s old-people’s homes, his unlikely ‘saviour’, unscrupulous old school chum Efraim Diveroli (Hill) appears on the scene with a proposition that could make him rich quick.
David can join the small-time arms trade and become a ‘War Dog’ like Efraim, looking for the crumbs – small arms contracts touted online by the US Government – and bid on them. As the money starts flowing in, the mother of all arms deals comes up – a 300 million dollar contract to arm the Military to the teeth in Afghanistan. That’s when the problems begin and the whole operation unravels, as the War Dogs must rely on elusive, Grade-A War Dog, Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper) to get a shipment out of Albania.
As the story goes, this is Hill as Efraim’s big moment, his very own The Wolf on Wall Street’s Jordan Belfort, completely absorbing with his maniacal, high-pitched laugh that both delights and disturbs. Hill ought to be commended for making the film bigger than it actually deserves to be. We never like his character and are waiting for him to do the dirty – well, we get told he will throughout. However, we do relate to the lure of his naked ambition. In fact, his character is far more intriguing than Teller’s, even though we are forced to believe the latter; David is our constant narrator and seems to get into more bother in the plot. Teller does as great a job with what he’s got to work with.
The film does miss a trick in being blacker than it is, merely dabbling in the dark side but swiftly returning to safety when the central rocky bromance waivers. We are meant to care about this relationship, even though we don’t quite buy it. Even Cooper’s shady middle-man arms dealer is just not threatening enough to give the film more of a sadistic edge it needs. Ironic, as at the start, David has a gun pointed to his head, setting up the high stakes of the dangerous war game they are in. We never get a real sense of that, which is a shame.
That said there is an infectious, erratic ‘goofiness’ to all the boys’ dealings that totally entertains, like two young city traders dabbling in dealings way over their heads. It tries to be a mix of The Lord of War, The Big Short and a Scorsese gangster buddy film, without really delving into what actually makes the characters tick – apart from the money. Indeed, even de Armas is left hanging, supposedly our moral compass but going off piste all the time – one minute appalled by David’s new business venture, the next supportive as it pays the bills. She just comes across as the typical, irrational (try gullible) new mum, all hormonal, and hardly a decent female character worth remembering. At least The Wolf’s Margot Robbie character doesn’t lie down and take it from her Wall Street rogue.
War Dogs is far from perfect and a wannabe imitation of a Scorsese film it aspires to be – queue the characters’ references throughout. However, Phillips has started ‘something’ of interest here, if he can just combine his skill of crafting bromances with a more developed and pitch-black comedic script in the near future. For now, there are enough laughs with Hill and Teller in action to make War Dogs highly watchable – especially Hill, plus it raises some interesting talking points of global government corruption. This is hardly shocking, but will have you shaking your head all the same at the cost of the ‘war business’.