Todd Phillips has made a career out of the comedic portrayal of grown men as fist-bumping, bro-bawling boys, most evident in his successful series of the The Hangover films. While there is nothing wrong with choosing this sort of comedic sub-genre as a trade-mark style, pursuing this in a based-on-true-events tale of arms dealers in the Iraq War complicates the matter.
War Dogs concerns the story of two young American friends, David Packouz (Miles Teller) and Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), who managed to conclude a 300 million dollar-contract with the U.S. Military to arm the American allies in Afghanistan. According to Phillips himself, the film shines a light on how ‘rigged’ the American government is when it comes to war and capital, next to being a slightly darker, yet recognisable version of his previous work.
However well-intended that sounds, this merging – or rather, confusing mix-up – of all-male action comedy with an attempt to show and critique the American handling of war (the film has the ironic tagline ‘An American Dream’), makes for an extremely glamorised representation of exactly the thing Phillips seems to resent: making some serious cash through the government’s flawed business of war. Therefore, the film’s few attempts to display a more serious and critical view on the matter is overshadowed by sexist humor, sweaty, testosterone and gun-filled shots and a general ‘boys will be boys’ mentality. Far from an intriguing ‘rigged government’ story, the film never reaches anything higher than a Miami Beach celebration of immature men living the high life on the back of Iraq War (which is, conveniently, left out altogether).
Not to say that women don’t get any screen time: Pacouz’s wife Iz (Ana de Armas) gets plenty, it’s only too bad that her lines and overall performance make her role as flat as the dollar bills that seem to appear in every shot, while having the same purpose: filling up the pleasing décor. She’s not the only victim of bad characterization: despite the top performances by Teller and Hill, and their great chemistry, the script never allows them to push their roles any further. There is an interesting tension between the two, with an underlying question about how sincere their friendship actually is, which could have been explored much more. In particular, Hill’s seemingly superficial gangster-aspiring role is enhanced by the dark undertones he has managed to bring into it. With Phillips even calling him ‘the 23-year-old Jewish version of Scarface,’ it is all the more upsetting that the plot is too thin to carry it.
It is not all bad though: as already mentioned, the main actors are great and, naturally, the film is entertaining, with some very comical scenes and snappy quotes (including Bradley Cooper’s ‘I’m not a bad man. But in certain situations, I have to ask myself: what would a bad man do?’). Unfortunately, though, War Dogs makes use of a much too convenient voice-over by Teller as well as unnecessary ‘chapters’ that often quote the characters in advance, a move that is equally arrogant as cringeworthy.
In conclusion, it seems that Phillips is not ready to put on his big boy pants just yet, at the cost of both the film’s great talent and its interesting source material. At least War Dogs teaches us that, no matter how shady your involvement in war and governmental businesses is, it does get you a hell of a nice apartment in Miami Beach, and in the end, that’s all part of Phillips’ not-so-critical American Dream.