The film chronicling the rise and fall of morally dubious-to-repugnant young men in semi-or-entirely illegal trade is not new concept. While not invented by Brian De Palma’s Scarface (1981), that was the film that revolutionized the format. Martin Scorsese perfected it with Goodfellas and any movie of that type to come after needs to set itself apart in a major way or it feels entirely rote. It’s possible to do (see: Boogie Nights (1997)), but it’s hard (see: Black Mass (2015)), and Todd Phillips’ new War Dogs does not come close to pulling it off.
There is no mistaking the movies War Dogs strives to emulate. The movie chronicles the meteoric rise and sudden fall of real-life twenty-something arms dealers David Packouz (Miles Teller) and Efraim Deveroli (Jonah Hill), as they skirt international trade laws to sell the U.S. Armed Forces weapons at bottom-basement prices and its story of irresponsible, borderline sociopathic, party dudes making a mint by turning a blind eye to human suffering bears more than a passing resemblance (in intent, not execution) to Scorsese’s own, far more compelling, Goodfellas remix The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). War Dogs has some of The Wolf of Wall Street’s “can you believe how rich those douchebags got doing that!” incredulity, but it never quite embraces the immorality of its characters and who they are; The Wolf of Wall Street let its characters be the unlikeable monsters that their real-life counterparts almost certainly were, opting instead to make Packouz a struggling young man who enters the arms trade when his girlfriend announces that she is pregnant. Hill’s Deveroli is more of an out-and-out bad guy, but his character is a foil to Teller’s, he’s never the focus of the movie. There’s no risk of alienating the audience with misbehavior or deplorable characters. Hill, for his part, does a pretty great job, owning every scene he is in and proving, once again, he has range and chops. Teller is fine but his role is too ordinary for anyone to do anything exceptional with it, the same goes double for Ana de Armaz who is relegated to the standard, thankless, fretting wife/girlfriend role.
Director and co-writer Todd Phillips seems following in the footsteps of fellow veteran comedy-director Adam McKay. Last year McKay stepped away from flat-out comedy to make the superbly prescient-yet-still-very-funny The Big Short and with his first film since completing his The Hangover trilogy in 2013, Phillips is following suit, trying his hand what is, ostensibly, a more “serious” film that still retains some comic leanings. It seldom works for Phillips. The film starts with some Goodfellas/Wolf of Wall Street-esque voiceover narration by Teller, describing the billions to be made from war, stating “War is an economy,” but the movie never really follows up on that thesis statement, instead taking the more routine path mentioned above. Phillips and his fellow writers, Stephen Chin and Jason Smilovic, never take let an opportunity to “tell” instead of “show” go by, explaining exactly what is going on in just about every scene via the aforementioned voiceover or nakedly-expository dialogue that reeks of fear that the audience will not be able to follow the plot. They needn’t have worried. Stylistically, the movie isn’t much to talk about, coming-off as Scorsese-lite with a far less inspired soundtrack (CCR’s “Fortunate Son” plays as an Army helicopter heroically soars overhead). It’s not all bad, Phillips knows how to compose an image, it’s a good-looking movie and it’s not stupid, it simply doesn’t trust its audience’s intelligence enough.
Director: Todd Phillips
Writer: Stephen Chin, Todd Phillips, Jason Smilovic
Cinematographer: Lawrence Sher
Editor: Jeff Groth
Starring: Miles Teller, Jonah Hill, Ana De Armas, J.B. Blanc, Bradley Cooper, Barry Livingston, Kevin Pollak