“What would a bad man do?”
Of course director Todd Phillips would gravitate towards a Rolling Stone article titled “The Stoner Arms Dealers.” If the man behind The Hangover trilogy was ever going to delve into more dramatic territory a la contemporary Adam McKay and last year’s The Big Short, Guy Lawson‘s piece on two twenty-somethings who landed huge military contracts with the US government before federal indictments was the perfect segue. It’s as though the characters from his Old School decided to make connections with black market arms organizations rather than start a fraternity. They’d still be able to bump coke and hit the bong to ease their nerves when walking into meetings because it’s Pentagon agents and Albanian terrorists on the other side of the table rather than Jeremy Piven‘s Dean.
Unfortunately, while Phillips has proven able to handle the large-scale budget a country-hopping adventure entails with The Hangover series, his script with Jason Smilovic and Stephen Chinlacks the finesse to bring us along. Whereas McKay’s Oscar-winning screenplay was loose and breezy with inventive transitions, informatively funny voiceover, and a fourth wall-breaking malleability keeping us on our toes, War Dogs suffocates almost from frame one. Not only is David Packouz (Miles Teller) a less than enthralling narrator—his matter-of-fact delivery lacking energy—he starts the story two-thirds of the way in with a gun to his face before rewinding to show the journey there. He actually used to be a masseuse, a fact he repeats compulsively as though Phillips forgot we’ve already see this unimportant detail in action.
He repeats it in voiceover as best friend Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) drives it down our throats with an easy joke that wasn’t exactly hilarious the first time: “David used to jerk-off rich guys for a living.” It’s not enough to simply let these two screw-ups be the product of a mind-blowing story putting them in line to set-up a three hundred million dollar weapons deal despite a semester of college between them, there has to be a “lame” job to poke fun at it too. Being a licensed masseuse is hardly the lamest job imaginable—save its intrinsic fodder for hand-job laughs—yet it being a major sign of embarrassment proves to be a plot point Phillips and company utilize over and over again with diminishing returns.
I felt like I was wading through the story rather than watching it unfold, the constant reminders of where these guys came from distracting from where they go. It doesn’t help that the entire movie is fractured into chapters marked by black screens with a line of dialogue someone will eventually utter within said chapter. This level of foreshadowing kills all momentum as nothing is allowed to unfold naturally. “I guess David is finally going to get caught in his lies to girlfriend Iz (Ana de Armas).” “Oh, they’re officially going to do something illegal.” Don’t hold my hand, guys. Let the characters do their thing and stop narrating what I’m seeing and what you’ve shown previously. Let the story speak for itself and stop trying so hard.
Phillips can’t quite let go of the goofy absurdity he’s so good at putting on-screen despite it being incongruous to his current subject matter. Hill’s high-pitched wheeze of a laugh is comical in a bad way (it killed with my fellow audience members upon its initial unveiling before growing tedious each subsequent entrance eliciting groans) and his Efraim’s sociopathic desire to self-destruct and over-think comes off too much like Zach Galifianakis‘ Alan in The Hangover instead of a man who understands the gravity of his situation. His character becomes obnoxious rather than cutthroat: a child throwing tantrums from a movie without stakes that’s off-leash in one where people die. He’s a cartoon character who idolizes Scarface trapped in reality that never truly fits the film’s dramatic trajectory.
Teller on-the-other-hand does. His David is a guy who’s lost his way. He’s on a normal path with his girlfriend: dinner with friends, protesting the war in Iraq, and making bad decisions career-wise. He’s a regular guy in a rut that sees an old friend for the first time in maybe a decade and ultimately craves his stark contrast of flashy confidence. Efraim has a way about him that excites those he engages with, bringing them on-board whatever scheme he’s cooking. David is a steadying hand to keep his friend’s volatility in check, talking him down from the ledge while also enjoying the danger he supplies through blind action. David doesn’t want to break the law, but he gets in over his head and eventually does exactly that.
For most of the film this is okay because it’s how Packouz and Diveroli’s AEY Inc. operates. They jump first and figure out logistics later, going to Jordan to transport guns seized by customs without doing their due diligence to see what the path to Baghdad holds. If they make it with their lives they’re bad-asses and if they don’t, oh well. Either way, they’ll do it together … until suddenly they won’t. The main point of conflict stems from a huge deal orchestrated with a shady partnership to Bradley Cooper‘s Henry leaving David the heavy lifting while Efraim has time and space to sabotage their success. It’s a sharp change to their dynamic that’s never inferred besides its necessity for a third act to make any sense.
We don’t fear for their lives; we merely watch them implode. Pulling the trigger on the gun pointed at David’s head would have been amazing because it would have been meaningful for once. The truth of their punishment is supposed to enrage us a la The Big Short and yet it can’t because it doesn’t enrage them. They go about their lives regardless of their circumstances throughout like everything’s a game. Iz leaves David, but they still talk on Skype. David fears Efraim will screw him, but he lets it happen despite blatantly collecting leverage to stop it—leverage he inexplicably ignores for an alternate smoking gun we already know is gone before finally using it months later. The script is a mess War Dogs simply can’t overcome.
Rating: R | Runtime: 114 minutes | Release Date: August 19th, 2016 (USA)
Studio: Warner Bros.
Director(s): Todd Phillips
Writer(s): Stephen Chin and Todd Phillips & Jason Smilovic / Guy Lawson (Rolling Stone article
“The Stoner Arms Dealers: How Two American Kids Became Big-Time Weapons Traders”)