When you think of arms dealers, those shady characters who use war and geo-political aggression to take advantage of the weaponless and line their bank accounts in the process, Miles Teller and Jonah Hill may just be the last names you think of to portray such charlatans. You could also say the same for Chevy Chase or Nicolas Cage, as both have essayed the part in Deal of the Century and Lord of War, respectively.
Now add in the director, whose fame stems almost exclusively from those bro-mantic excuses for comedic chaos — The Hangover trilogy — and suddenly you’re wondering if there’s any way this late August release will work. The answer, interestingly enough, is that it does. Somewhat.
Oh sure, Todd Phillips is mining every bit of Scorsese he can out of this based-on-a-true-story, aping The Wolf of Wall Street and its OMG level of debauched reverie, but what he delivers in bong hit bravado he tends to lose in social commentary. War Dogs is based on a true story, but it’s reality that seems to be absent from this otherwise scathing skewering of weaponry and wantonness. Marketed as a comedy but lacking real jokes, dramatic in narrative make up but too frivolous to provide the necessary gravitas, what we end up with is an entertaining experience, so long as one is not concerned with focus and identity.
The premise, however promises more than this movie can provide. When the Bush Administration decided to invade Afghanistan and Iraq post-9/11, the sweetheart deals given to no-bid contractors like Halliburton (in which Vice President Dick Cheney had a vested interest) were roundly criticized, forcing the US government’s hand. Enter old high school chums David (Teller) and Efriam (Hill). The former is a failed Miami masseuse, the latter has discovered the US loophole in the arms trade and wants to exploit it. Thus we get the cons, the complications, and the cooperation of a mystery man (Bradley Cooper), which may bring this entire enterprise untold riches — or cost these novices their lives.
One of the most intriguing aspects of The Hangover, a storytelling approach that Phillips relies on here as well, is the notion of mixing humor and horror. We laugh at the losers who keep pushing their luck way past the point of possible survival, and yet marvel when they manage to survive. Hill’s character loves Scarface, and as a result, we see his obsession in his tone and timing. Cocaine also arrives, though it cannot compete with the Quaalude-a-thon that wasWolf of Wall Street. Phillips finds a way to make it all work, though you may be questioning the decision to dump most of the political subtext for more and more Tony Montana riffs.
This is the biggest issue with War Dogs. We keep expecting the denouement, the sequence where the numbskull Neo-Con reasons for the invasion are mocked and marginalized. We want the real reason for the war reported, to see these two bros bring the Bush Administration back into the cultural conversation one more time so it can be deciphered and destroyed. Instead, on-the-nose music cues make everything so obvious that you half expect some of the songs to do the heavy lifting, politically speaking.
Teller and Hill have great chemistry, but they really don’t come across as the kind of guys who could manage a gun run through the “Triangle of Death” (a particularly dangerous region south of Baghdad), let alone agree to do it. They’re much more comfortable in the various montages that make their journey from jokers to genuine arms dealer into a series of MTV-inspired video shorts. There’s also supposed to be an undercurrent of paranoia, a feeling that the good times can’t last forever and that David and Efriam are doomed to be discovered as the foolhardy frauds they are. Besides, we aren’t really on their side.
That’s right, War Dogs fails to get us to care about what happens to these guys. There’s no real family to fret over, with girlfriends relegated to ridiculous asides and limited on screen import. Further, Phillips rushes things, giving Act Three an unusual briskness that countermands the slower set-up. Still, this movie finds a way to work — sort of. You can see the better effort peaking out of Phillips’ many flights of fancy.
War Dogs may not want to be more than fun and fizzy, but you can’t wander into what is arguably one of the biggest policy blunders of the last decade and not offer some insight. That basic bros managed to make money and live high off the War on Terror is nothing new. We expect more, but this movie delivers just enough.