War Dogs Review

War Dogs (Review) starring Jonah Hill and Miles Teller
(Photo: Warner Bros. )

Short Version: War Dogs is a fun way to wind down the summer movie season.

War Dogs takes us into the real-life mid-00s story of David Packouz (Miles Teller), a twenty-something Miami boy watching life pass him by as he struggles as a massage therapist for the wealthy/aspiring entrepreneur. David's professional limbo comes to an end when he reconnects with his adolescent buddy Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), a brash, crass, shifty purveyor of the most lucrative commodity in W. Bush-era America: guns.

Efraim quickly takes David under his wing and tantalizes him with the lures of money, wild times, and the freedom to be his own boss; but that luster is shattered when David's girlfriend Iz (Ana de Armas) gets pregnant. With real-world responsibilities on his shoulders, David pushes even deeper into Efraim's world, soon finding himself doing actual gun-running in the deadliest zones of the Iraq War. When greater danger brings only greater reward and reputation, Efraim and David set their sights on the biggest white wale there is: a multi-million-dollar contract with the US government. But with that big of a deal on the table, and sharks like arms dealer Hery Girard (Bradley Cooper) circling, Efraim and David soon discover just how little of fish they are, in the great big violent ocean of the war industry.

Jonah Hill and Miles Teller Star in Todd Phillips War Dogs
(Photo: Warner Bros. )

As a snippet of history brought to us by The Hangover director Todd Phillips, War Dogs manages to entertain as both a comedy and biopic, while simultaneously sacrificing the ability to push a bit further in order to truly be great at either. It's an interesting to film to watch, but tonally uneven and a bit unfocused in intent; yet, scene to scene it's witty and funny enough to distract from its narrative shortcomings.

On the directorial front, War Dogs is the most ambitious and accomplished directorial effort Phillips has shown. It employs every technique and stylistic flare he's perfected in the last ten years of directing some great cinematic comedies (The Hangover, Old School), and marries them to some new techniques that could arguably stand toe-to-toe with big directors like Michael Bay or Ridley Scott. That's all to say: Phillips seems to have evolved as a director in his three years since the last Hangover effort, and it's a welcome growth; War Dogs looks gorgeous (Phillips's go-to cinematographer Lawrence Sher has perfected that crisp saturated color) and it plays slickly with little drag... until the ending, that is.

War Dogs Movie Images - Ana De Armas
(Photo: Warner Bros. )

Based on the Rolling Stone article "Arms and the Dudes", the War Dogs screenplay by Phillips, TV writer Jason Smilovic and first-timer Stephen Chin never finds a solid thematic line to carry us through the story. Like so many biopics, what we get is an episodic collection of highlighted moments, following the usual rise, fall, (rise again?) journey of pretty much anyone or anything worth making a biopic about. But thematically, tonally, the script seems to constantly grasp at several threads (greed, the absurdity of the war industry, the ideological and moral corruption of Bush-era American culture), but never pulls on them hard enough to successfully tie them together into a strong climatic finish.

War Dogs (like its protagonists, at one point in the film) runs out of gas rather abruptly, and strands viewers in an unfortunate place where all the outrageous fun suddenly turns oddly somber and meditative, ending on a scene that, while well done in and of itself, will likely feel awkward and odd in comparison to the film that preceded it. It's a thematic payoff that was never really earned, and shows that War Dogs perhaps has some unrealistic ideas of its own profundity. As it stands, this is another darkly comedic "can't believe that really happened" true story ripped a news headline, and as such it sits right alongside Michael Bay's Pain & Gain, teetering the line between mockery and endorsement of its protagonists. Luckily, the fun of the journey outweighs the lack of a clear destination.

Jonah Hill and Miles Teller in War Dogs Movie
(Photo: Warner Bros. )

Making that journey fun are two great performances from Miles Teller and Jonah Hill. Hill in particular continues to justify those past Oscar nominations (for Moneyball and Wolf of Wall Street) with another great performance as Efraim, owning every scene he's in (often with just a laugh), and pumping the movie up with an electric energy sorely missed whenever he's not onscreen.

Teller is also an asset playing the straight man in the duo, as his dry wit is a strong compliment to Hill's bombastic energy. Teller makes David almost too likable, to the point that it kind of throws the movie off, as ultimately we're supposed to remember that this young man made some very immoral decisions out of greed (he's not exactly a tragic hero in all this - but the movie kind of spins him that way). Hill, on the other hand, offers a bit more depth and layers to his character, so that there is always something sinister underneath his faux-friendly demeanour and blowhard braggadocio; there's never any confusion about what kind of person Efraim is at his core, which makes his arc more focused and discernible, while Teller's character kind of gets lost in a thematic fog. Neither performance is bad, though - and together, Teller and Hill have a great chemistry that propels the film.

Bradley Cooper in War Dogs Movie
(Photo: Warner Bros. )

There are a lot of supporting players helping things along; the camera certainly loves (and lingers on) actress Ana de Armas, who plays David's girlfriend Iz. Armas takes a standard 'worried/nagging GF' and actually creates a better (and more realistic) sort of character, able to emote strength of will and sensibility without a lot of false melodrama. She's also able to keep pace with Teller's banter and wit, which makes their relationship feel genuine - and therefore, worth worrying about. On the other side of that spectrum, Bradley Cooper is able to spin a detached and idiosyncratic menace into an interesting villain character in Henry Girard. He's not onscreen all that much, but he definitely holds every scene he's in.

In the end, War Dogs is a fun way to wind down the summer movie season. There are hints that it could've been an award season release, but given the weak thematic focus, it's probably better as an irreverent comedic memoir, rather than being half-formed socio-political commentary. Fans of Phillips' sharp brand of R-rated comedy won't be disappointed, and general audiences (from the bros to the cinephiles) should finds themselves with a good enough reprieve from the moviegoing wasteland that is late August.

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Grade: B

War Dogs is in theaters starting on August 19th. It is 114 minutes long and is Rated R for language throughout, drug use and some sexual references.