Review: ‘War Dogs’ thinks its heroes are awesome dudes
Bro! Did you hear about the two bros who scored the $300 million government contract, bro?
Director Todd Phillips has fashioned “War Dogs” as “Goodfellas” for the bros set. Call it “Goodbros.”
It follows a pair of childhood pals who miraculously become arms dealers and nab a $300 million contract from the U.S. government. Dude! Phillips celebrates the pair’s triumph the way you’d root on a buddy playing beer pong. He never really questions the moral or ethical dilemmas at hand, he’s too stoked for his pals and their big score. “Government’s been screwing us over for years, man,” you can hear him justifying.
Thing is, Phillips — the merry madman behind “Old School” and the “Hangover” movies — is in over his head fashioning a crime saga. He tosses in classic rock songs, freeze frames and title cards meant to give the material heft, but which come off as Diet Scorsese. The giant “Scarface” mural that can be seen in several scenes is meant to explain his protagonists’ worldview of glorified violence, one step removed, but it’s also Phillips’ blatant homage to the movies he’s aping.
(A better blueprint would have been Andrew Niccol’s “Lord of War,” which actually satirized war profiteers, where Phillips identifies with them.)
Miles Teller and Jonah Hill are David Packouz and Efraim Diveroli, two Florida friends who became obscenely rich from dealing arms until they got busted by the Feds. (The script is based on a Rolling Stone article about the real life duo.) Teller is tasked with giving Packouz a soul, which is only half convincing and contrived for storytelling purposes. Ana de Armas is a dud in a thankless role as Packouz’s girlfriend, whose job it is to bum Packouz out by nagging him about the lack of attention he’s paying her, or their child.
Hill’s is an extension of the role he played in “Wolf of Wall Street,” though his main addition to the character is an obnoxious cackle that feels like a forced catchphrase every time he lets it fly. Bradley Cooper shows up as a shady war monger with whom the boys do a deal; he’s playing the Robert De Niro role, which is fitting since he’s the most important figure in Phillips’ universe. (Zach Galifianakis doesn’t show up, but tellingly, Instagram alpha bro Dan Bilzerian makes a cameo.)
“War Dogs” is all slickness and no soul; it’s like if “The Big Short” made heroes out of the mortgage lenders. It’s watchable popcorn entertainment and it goes down easy, but material like this should be challenging and should at least ask a few prodding questions. The questions “War Dogs” asks are mainly “how can I do that?” and “where do I sign up?” It’s like a recruitment tool for douchebags.
“War is an economy,” Teller’s character says in voiceover. “Anyone who tells you otherwise is either in on it or stupid.” “War Dogs” is also in on it, and its dime-store moralizing in its final act can’t distance itself from its treatment of its two leads as rock stars. The “Scarface” mural isn’t a commentary; it’s an endorsement.
Rated R for language throughout, drug use and some sexual references
Running time: 114 minutes