Four Star Rating: ***
Starring: Miles Teller, Jonah Hill, Ana de Armas, Barry Livingston, Bradley Cooper
Director: Todd Phillips
Screenplay: Todd Phillips, Jason Smilovic, Stephen Chin
Source Material: Rolling Stone article "Arms and the Dudes" by Guy Lawson
Genre: Comedy, Drama, War
Rated: 14A (Canada)/R (US) - course language, violence, substance abuse, sexual references
Release Date: August 19, 2016
Run Time: 114 minutes
Many film critics were shocked last year when Adam McKay (who previously helmed the Anchorman movies, Talladega Nights, Step Brothers, and The Other Guys) brought the stylized, dramatic but still comedic The Big Short that explored the financial crisis of 2008 and how some guys got rich off it. Reviews compared its feel, style and tone to a Martin Scorsese motion picture and felt it proved McKay had the skills to make more than just broad comedies.
Todd Phillips (who gave us such comedies as The Hangover series, Road Trip, Old School and Starsky and Hutch) does an even better job of channelling the spirit and storytelling style of many Scorsese classics with his latest feature, War Dogs. The Big Short had a clear message and was out to show the evils of the big banking system, but War Dogs is much more similar to Scorsese movies like Goodfellas, Casino and The Wolf of Wall Street by exploring shady individuals who get rich by illegal acts but eventually tumble hard but present it without any judgement or obvious message. The great Scorsese movies trust the audience to figure out what is right and wrong, and doesn't bog down the narrative with redemptive acts or a need for condemnation. War Dogs isn't at the caliber of the previously mentioned masterpieces but it is a bold, confident and entertaining movie that allows its leads to be reprehensible and doesn't waste time with an obvious critique on how the American government conducts its arm dealing business. It leaves us with unlikable idiots for two hours but keeps us gripped with its style, brashness and humour.
There is a tone and editing structure that is often imitated in dramatic and comedic "based on true stories" of a person who throws away his values for riches but then is floored by his own greed or incompetence. It usually kicks off with the protagonist already deep in the muck but then the action pauses for some witty narration by that same protagonist and then the rewind button is hit so we see how the character got to that downfall. War Dogs starts with Miles Teller's David Packouz being roughed up in a grey and decrepit street before having a gun pointed at his head, but he then narrates to us the type of gun it is and then we jump back a year to explain how it all led to this point. It is a standard formula the movie maintains to the end, but Phillips has a brisk pacing and a comedic timing that keeps the movie compelling even if it at times it feels like Scorsese-lite.
David starts out as an average nobody living his life like a schnook who does massage therapy for rich and lecherous old men and is stuck with half an apartment full of fine bedsheets that the penny-pinching retirement homes refuse to buy from him. He has the added pressure of his girlfriend Iz (played by Ana de Armas) announcing she is pregnant that puts the heat on trying make enough to support his growing family. He then reconnects with his high school best friend Efraim Diveroli (played by Jonah Hill) when both are attending a funeral of a high school friend. David learns Efraim is making a lot of money with his company AEY Inc. that sells weapons to the U.S. military. David is uneasy about the business and is even an objector of the war in Iraq but the lure of money finds him working for his friend.
The story is a distorted and dark take of the American Dream where two way out of their league twenty years olds are able to land a huge 300 million dollar contract with the Pentagon and become wealthy businessmen in less than a year. David in an attempt to provide for his family almost destroys it by his constant lies and trying to cover up his actions like going to Iraq or hiding some of the money he makes. Both guys dig into the dark side of the business by dealing with Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper) an arms dealer that can't work with the U.S. military due to being on a terrorist watch list. When they're stuck with ammunition that was from the Cold War and manufactured by China (a country that the US military can't buy from due to an embargo), the two friends go further down the path of illegal activity. Money is what drives them and almost every scene shows the erosion of their ethics and morals.
There will be viewers that have a difficult time with this material and feel like the corrupted dealings are being glorified and made to look exciting and alluring. It is a slick and superbly paced movie that shows colourful scenes in night clubs and lavish homes bought by questionable business. There is a fun and blood pumping scene of the two being chased by Iraqi militants that ends with the American military coming to the rescue and our leads cheering about their lives being saved. They encounter many obstacles and tough situations but use their underhanded tactics to get out of the situation. But at no point does it ever feel like Phillips is directing a story that approves of these actions nor is there that moment we're supposed to feel sympathy. These are reprehensible people doing horrible things and we aren't meant to want them to overcome. We are just meant to watch. We are to see the curtain pull back and observe how the government's obsession with the war allowed for things like this to happen. It exposes flaws in the system and reveals the dangerous side of striving for a view of success that means financial riches. It just does it with humour and flair that makes it a fun descent into corruption, deceit and lies.
The real stand out in this movie is Jonah Hill. Hill for years had a reputation as a foul mouthed sidekick in raunchy comedies, which led to some being surprised with his performances in Moneyball and The Wolf of Wall Street. He has now nailed another Best Supporting Actor worthy showcase here. Efraim is the most enjoyable part of the movie despite being a detestable human being. He is the stereotypical ugly American who has a delusional self-entitlement that is both racist and misogynistic. He sees everyone as objects that he can play for his own gain. He spouts out politically incorrect language at every opportunity and is willing to fire a guy for questioning the meaning of his business initials. You never trust that he clearly cares about David and at no point seems to feel guilty about the actions he takes to become rich. He believes Brian De Palma's Scarface is a how-to-guide to success and even has the same giant landscape picture in his office that Tony Montana had. But you still get drawn to him and find yourself laughing at his antics and caring about what he does due to the massive charisma and charm oozing out of him. You believe that David could have been suckered in and you see how he was able to make these million dollar deals even though he has no credibility. Hill embodies this character and brings the energy to this entire picture.
Phillips still makes a comedy here just like all his past works. It is still full of popcorn munching fun and breezy dialogue full of wit. It also uses some raunchy comedy and foul language to set the tone of being an irreverent comedy. He proves to have grown as a filmmaker and pulled off the type of story that few could do successfully. Most would want to make it too didactic and drag it down with a clearer message. This is a bold picture that trusts its audience and handles challenging material while still feeling light, silly and fun. Phillips also uses set pieces and various shots to create atmosphere. The colours and backgrounds often convey the emotions of the scenes and can bring about dread like when things fall apart in Albania or a sense of adventure as they race down the road in Iraq.
War Dogs is a major achievement because it proves that following a formula doesn't mean a movie has to feel routine and tired. It is a riotous two hours in a summer that has mostly been filled with dull and predictable blockbusters. More importantly, it gets me excited about what Phillips has planned next as a director and if he will continue to tackle more challenging material.
One more thing before I wrap up here. This is based on a Rolling Stone article by Guy Lawson called "Arms and the Dudes" but it is better to say it was inspired. The two leads are real people and they were 22 year old arms dealer, so that is factual. This has been heavily dramatized with more fiction than truth crammed into it. It is more real than The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Fargo, but I still wouldn't use it as a source for your next college paper.