Story Saves Warbly "War Dogs"

First, an incredible Rolling Stone article: “The Stoner Arms Dealers: How Two American Kids Became Big-Time Weapons Traders.” Then, a full-length exposé (and an even longer title): “Arms And The Dudes: How Three Stoners From Miami Beach Became The Most Unlikely Gunrunners In History.” Now, Guy Lawson’s unbelievable piece of investigative storytelling is “War Dogs,” a feature length film from “The Hangover” director Todd Phillips.”

The movie is Phillips’ big pivot from comedy to dramedy, and he’s chosen a story that’s the equivalent of a screenwriting cheat code. The true-life tale of two twenty-something American entrepreneurs (or sociopaths) climbing (or backing) their way into $200 million worth of weapons contracts with the federal government is too good to screw up. Phillips knows this, which is why it’s so disappointing that he almost screws it up. The upshot is a sloppy hybrid of Michael Bay’s “Pain & Gain” and David O. Russell’s “Three Kings” with a heaping helping of missed opportunity. It’s a sliver of the “ugly American” epic it might have been, hampered by bad voiceover, nauseatingly on-the-nose musical choices, and one badly miscast lead.

Yet, through it all, the story is so enthralling that nothing else really matters.

After a brief opening sequence set in 2008, we jump back to 2005. Miles Teller (“Whiplash”) plays bored Miami masseuse David Packouz. He’s unsatisfied with oiling up old Floridian socialites and even more unsatisfied when he switches to hawking bedsheets. With the discovery that his girlfriend Iz (Ana de Armas) is pregnant, adulthood and financial reckoning come calling.

Jonah Hill (“The Wolf Of Wall Street”) co-stars as David’s long-lost childhood friend Efraim Diveroli. We learn that the pair’s friendship originally frayed when David’s parents decided Efraim was a bad influence. (They were right, he’s the worst influence.) The two pick it back up at a funeral and their rekindled alliance soon turns to business. They pretend to be arms dealers, and then – voila! – they are arms dealers.

As the story escalates and these two leeches parlay tens of thousands of dollars into hundreds of millions, it becomes more and more apparent how outmatched Teller is. He’s a fine actor with more range than he’s given credit for, but Hill towers over him. Efraim is a hard lean into the hateful oaf persona that Hill’s been cultivating over the years, and the result casts a shadow over everyone else in the movie. Moreover, David is the movie’s lone player that needs to be relatable, if not likable. Teller’s unwavering cockiness might be true to the character, but it renders many of the pic’s big laughs tough to swallow and their real-life implications all the more skin crawling.

The screenplay’s surplus of expository dialogue is both a boon and a bane. It helps to keep the focus on the facts, which are the real stars here. But it also leads to Teller babbling over much of the film via voiceover. Some of it’s necessary, but it dates the film well past its mid-2000s timeline and grows into a frequent reminder that none of this is living up to its source material.

Phillips problems are twofold. Aside from not being able to shed his regrettable Wolfmother fandom, his biggest non-musical sin proves to be a simple aesthetic choice. He half-commits to on screen chapter titles, but in the form of forthcoming quotes, robbing us of the surprise of a couple of choice lines. Not only does it add nothing; it actually subtracts. It throws the film off its behind-the-beat rhythm every time it goes down.

Fortunately, by the time David and Efraim get involved with their biggest score (a lowball offer to sell new old Albanian AK ammo stock to the United States) Phillips mostly gets out of his story’s way. The voiceover and hair-graying song choices fade and “War Dogs” becomes its best self – a loony march towards personal (if not actual) apocalypse. Over the film’s final forty minutes, the laughs and disbelief both begin to pile up and the picture finally grazes its target. Bradley Cooper’s extended cameo as a shady, bespectacled arms dealer certainly doesn’t hurt, his character tying a bow on Phillips’ otherwise tumultuous marriage between comedy and drama.

For every groan-inducing musical cue, there’s a fascinating story development to cover it over. For every unlikable minute of Teller’s screen time, there’s Hill to assure us that Teller’s character isn’t so unlikable after all. “War Dogs” isn’t close to Phillips’ best film, but it does show a strong desire to be more than just a comedy filmmaker. That’s worth something. He might only be pretending at this point, but if “War Dogs” teaches us anything, it’s that pretending is half the battle.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: August 19, 2016
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Todd Phillips
Screenwriter: Stephen Chin, Todd Phillips, Jason Smilovic
Starring: Jonah Hill, Miles Teller, Ana de Armas, Kevin Pollak, Bradley Cooper
MPAA Rating: R (for language throughout, drug use and some sexual references)