Did you like Scarface? Or Goodfellas? Or The Wolf of Wall Street? Good, so did the guys who made War Dogs, and they really want you to like it too.
The term ‘based on a true story’ usually invites odious comparisons with actual, usually less incredulous source material. The opposite is often true for high-school buddies turned international arms dealers Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) and David Packouz (Miles Teller), both much younger at the time of the film’s events than their respective cast-counterparts would have you believe.
The film, now the subject of a suit by Diveroli and based in part on a 2011 Rolling Stone article well worth the time it takes to read it, chronicles how the pair were able to secure a $298 million dollar Pentagon contract in the years of high-demand immediately following the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
As with the much more famous precursors helmed by Brian De Palma and Martin Scorcese, War Dogs begins with a rags to riches story (complete with still-frame narration) and slowly proceeds to some great times at the top of the pile before things begin to unravel. The problem here is that War Dogs never really develops its own distinct style. Jumping from an uproarious scene where the pair hop-skip to Baghdad to much more tense encounters with the arms underworld, you’re never quite sure if you’re watching a comedy, a homage to Tony Montana or something neglectfully trying to comment on how war begets greed and a whole lot else.
Where The Hurt Locker and the like excelled for their morally ambiguous treatment of military intervention and the Iraq War, War Dogs could just as easily have been a picture all the more compelling for straddling the divisive politics by portraying Diveroli and Packouz alternately as greedy opportunists or unwilling pawns in a wider game, instead choosing to dish out heavy-handed reminders that war is, in fact, good for absolutely nothing, unless you stand to make a profit. Hill, not entirely indistinguishable from his recent turn opposite Leonardo Di Caprio, is nonetheless the funniest and most engaging of the two leads, with Whiplash star Teller turning in a reliably diverse performance as the more morally-conflicted of the pair.
With The Hangover trilogy director Todd Phillips getting the whole fish out of water thing down pat, the film otherwise leans too heavily on nostalgia for the greats that came before it, none more so than the stylistic flourishes ala Goodfellas and Scarface more than evident throughout. Whereas the abovementioned classics were content to show bad guys being bad guys and feature the redemption narrative as an afterthought at best, Phillips plays it to the hilt. As if we somehow needed to feel just that bit more compassionate for the dude-bros who lied to their loved-ones and trafficked illegal arms, the film consequently leaves out whole sections of the real-life scandal which are actually much more interesting and would have justly merited a longer run-time.
That’s not to say War Dogs isn’t an enjoyable, or frequently funny film, it just never manages to escape the very large shadow that it casts for itself.
Producer Bradley Cooper obligatorily pops his head in as a notorious arms dealer, again someone who based on the descriptions available could have been played to much greater effect. Instead, the filmmakers opt for something much safer and recognisable in a film near entirely dependent on its novel, incredulous true-to-life events, almost sparingly told in parts, that it never invests enough faith in to achieve the subversive edge it so desperately wanted.
War Dogs is in cinemas now