Film Review: War Dogs (M15+) (USA, 2016) is a comic surprise

Pain and Gain. The Wolf of Wall Street. Scarface. What do these films have in common? The characters are all on a quest to achieve their own versions of the American Dream. They are all about greed and the seduction of power that shows that absolute power corrupts absolutely. But what makes the first two films stand out is that not only do they draw satire and comedy from their stories, it just so happens that they’re both based on true events. The Hangover’s Todd Phillips‘ latest film, War Dogs, follows that trend.

With talented actors Jonah Hill (who has the moniker ‘character actor’ written all over him) and Miles Teller (fresh off the Fant4stic slump) as the leads, this could be a potential winner. But considering The Hangover sequels, the expectations certainly dip, but War Dogs fortunately qualifies as a pleasant surprise.

Miles Teller stars as David Packouz, a massage therapist who is sick and tired of being stuck in a mediocre life, despite having a beautiful wife, Iz (Ana de Armas) who loves and supports him. After a failed attempt to start his own business selling bed sheets, his junior high school classmate. Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) inexplicably shows up and the two pick up their friendship where they left off. Then Efraim offers David a chance to make big bucks by becoming an international arms dealer. Together, they exploit a government initiative that allows businesses to bid on U.S. military contracts and make a raking out of it. But they soon find themselves in over their heads after landing a $300 million deal to supply Afghan forces, a deal that puts them in business with some very shady people.

If anyone has seen the trailers for this film, you wouldn’t be  wrong if you expected this film to be an all-out comedy, along the lines of The Hangover films. But as the final product turns out, it actually is more of a crime drama that just happens to have comedy in it. Todd Phillips‘ last film was The Hangover 3, which was derided by critics and audiences alike (including myself). The main reason it was derided was because it was more of a thriller than an actual comedy.

The same exact feel is in War Dogs, but in this case, it suits the film’s story (and its characters) a lot better. The true events of the story are so ridiculous that it suits the screen treatment it gets, as Phillips’ direction makes it fun to watch. It also makes the film quite unpredictable and alongside the fast editing, frenetic cinematography, colorful settings, it all ends up in blackly comic fun. But compared to films like The Wolf of Wall Street and Pain and Gain, War Dogs is more subtle, and while the understated feel works to a degree, when it comes to the condemnation of the characters, it seems a bit slight and ultimately hinders the ending.

It is immediately obvious that director Todd Phillips was inspired by Martin Scorsese‘s work as well as Scarface, as it has all the hallmarks: narrations, scenes in the third act that start the film, the soundtrack etc. But that just balances out the absurdity of the story. Scarface in particular, has a presence throughout the film as well as an influence on Hill’s character as his office has the exact same wall painting and his lamps are gold AK-47 assault rifles.

And speaking of AK-47s, nothing fires as many rounds and hits as many targets as Jonah Hill as Efraim Diveroli. Building on his promise as a masterful character from films like Moneyball and The Wolf of Wall Street, Hill plays the comedic role with ease, while digging into the darkness of the character really well. Playing a sociopath with the kind of empty-eyed smile and the smooth talk of a salesman, Hill creates a monstrous character that will draw you in and repel you in equal measure.

As for the other members of the cast, Miles Teller still shows the average-joe charm that made audiences like him in the first place, and it works here. It certainly helps that he has great chemistry with Hill and he convincingly portrays the naivety of the character. Ana de Armas (whom I enjoyed in Knock Knock and Exposed) makes the most out of her thankless role as the supportive wife, while Bradley Cooper portrays the sinister edge of his arms dealer character well, especially when he reveals his ironic feelings in the final act.

As much as director Phillips tries to make a crime saga, there are some storytelling problems that take it back a notch. The title cards that appear throughout the film are ultimately unnecessary, while the use of narration is nowhere near as good as other crime films, mainly because it is used for exposition rather than gradually developing the characters. The story also dwells into cliches such as the supporting wife, and it stands out like a sore thumb alongside the entertainingly unbelievable events. And it is very noticeable that whenever Hill is not on-screen, the film suffers from his lack of presence.

But overall, War Dogs was a much more substantial film than I ever expected from the trailers. With a great source material to work with, a fantastic performance from Jonah Hill and Todd Phillips‘ directorial change of pace, War Dogs is a well articulated comedic experience that shows another delusional and depraved side of the American Dream and how low the US Government can actually stoop.

Review Score: THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

War Dogs is in cinemas now.