From the Archives: War Dogs review

From the Archives: War Dogs review

In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it. 

Without further ado, I present to you: FROM THE ARCHIVES.
Originally posted on Cinema76.

Somewhere between Pain & GainThe Big Short, and Lord of War exists War Dogs, the latest comedy from Todd Phillips, the undisputed master of stories about greedy young men with more ambition than intellect. But unlike his previous films, this one has an added bonus: it’s a true story. Based on the Rolling Stone article “Arms and the Dudes,” our tale follows a twenty-something massage therapist David Packouz (Miles Teller) who, tired of eking out a meager existence, finds a future in the form of a job opportunity offered to him by former middle school buddy Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill). When the two reunite at the funeral of a mutual friend their adolescent bond is renewed almost instantly, never mind the fact that Diveroli seems to have taken the form of a Tony Montana parody during his absence. He’s tan, his hair is greased back with a mixture of gel and cocaine sweat, and his behavior is unapologetically foul. Yet, despite his uncouth sensibilities, his charisma is undeniable, and it’s easy to see why clean-cut Packouz is drawn to him. I mean, who hasn’t wanted to be Tony Montana just a little bit? Don’t lie to me.

Diveroli has uncovered a mostly legal way to make a ton of money in the weapons racket. You see, the government is required to publicly list all military supply contracts, and while all of the big companies have their eyes on the largest shipments, “war dogs” like Diveroli can make a mint picking up the smaller orders. Helmets, ammo cases, etc.

“I live off the crumbs. Like a rat,” proclaims Diveroli with a squealing laugh. Seems innocent enough, and it’s not long before Packouz is a pro. The two begin to expand their company by shamelessly undercutting their competition and bending the rules whenever necessary (when weapons are involved, the powers that be will mostly turn a blind eye so long as they get the guns they need). It’s the American Dream realized, but as these things go, the boys get a little big for their britches, and things begin to crumble, both for their business and their friendship.

This is all telegraphed by the opening sequence in which Packouz is being held at gunpoint in the first part of a Casino-esque bookend. Also acting to tie the story together is a series of title cards, each featuring a quote from the subsequent segment. These cards feel a bit disjointed, and it’s not until they begin to grow foreboding in their content that they seem to have any sort of effect outside of lazily connecting the film’s narrative tissue. It’s an odd device, but it shows a bit of growth as a filmmaker on the part of Phillips. Where his Hangover trilogy is so chock full of gags that it becomes exhausting, War Dogs is concerned primarily with story, the jokes only serving to accentuate the “can you believe this happened?” of it all. The result is a comedy film in which the humor is given room to breathe. It’s not Phillips’ best film (that distinction goes to Starsky & Hutch), but it more than proves his worth as a visual storyteller. It’s not the jump to legitimacy that Adam McKay experienced with The Big Short, but it’s a valiant effort.

Remember before when I said he’s the king of stories about young men with more ambition than intellect? Well, that. And I mean that in the most complimentary way imaginable.

The two leading actors carry the film with exactly the charm(?) you’d expect, even if they both feel too old for their roles. The chemistry between them is real. It is entirely believable that they run down this strange career path together. Miles Teller can do the straight man pretty well, even if the film has trouble balancing just how much we are supposed to empathize with him. Goodfellas-level characterization is a tall order, but it shows that it can be done. Every time he promises his underwritten wife (Ana de Armas) that he’ll never lie again, only to leap back into dishonesty with open arms, we lose a little of the empathy that the film seems to ask for. Yes, it is a story without heroes, but if you aren’t going to go head first into incredulity à la Pain & Gain, you need to give us more.

wardogs-postWe do get more in terms of character from Jonah Hill’s absolutely despicable take on Efraim Diveroli. He’s the worst type of dude imaginable. I’ve referenced both Goodfellas and Casino, and in Hill’s performance I see the most common ground – he’s Joe Pesci. He’s the guy who has everything but wants more, and it’s his boundless capacity for selfishness that keeps him on top of the heap. He’ll step on anything and anyone to climb to the next rung, and he’ll do it on nobody’s terms but his own. Much like Pesci, Hill has taken a character that could be paper thin and given him pathos. It would be easy to say that Diveroli is evil, but Hill imbues him with an air of brokenness that elevates what’s on the page to something much denser. He’s also very, very funny.

So no, War Dogs isn’t a game-changer by any definition, nor will it be facing the awards consideration of The Big Short, but as a calling card for a filmmaker seeking a jump to the big leagues, it demands to be considered. And God bless the deliciously ambiguous ending.

Wars Dogs opens today in Philly area theaters.

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