WAR DOGS Review
Director: Todd Phillips
After Adam McKay proved a star-turn from slapstick director to political satirist with THE BIG SHORT, I decided to keep my hopes up for Todd Phillips’s newest release, WAR DOGS. And in many ways I wasn’t wrong to do so. Both directors come from a comedy background, and had decided to release films that made serious political statements about the dour state of affairs in America’s capitalist culture, whether it’s on Wall Street or in the military. With WAR DOGS, Phillips has released a comedy that banks heavily on the charisma of its two stars, and while successfully navigating the difficult tightrope walk of taste versus glorification, it’s simply not elegant enough to ever feel like clever satire. And to top things off, I really am starting to feel queasy laughing about the death of Middle Easterners, even if it’s critical of the west.
Phillips follows the true story of two twenty somethings that find themselves supplying the US military with ammunition and basic weaponry. Opening up with a stylish montage reminiscent of last year’s THE BIG SHORT, WAR DOGS front loads its exposition with informational graphics and witty voice-overs. In fact, this is some of the best use of voice-over I’ve seen all year, functioning to establish the universe without ever feeling expository. That’s not to say that there aren’t any hiccups along the way, as some voice-overs are needless, cringe inducing one-liners, but for the majority of the film, they service character, not story, most notably when they introduce Jonah Hill’s conniving, arrogant, identity chameleon, Efraim Diveroli.
Hill had to eat a tuna sub before every take to maintain composure
And Jonah Hill is really the centerpiece of Phillips’s film, performing with cocky ease, a minimal, but noticeable departure from his equally obnoxious performance in THE WOLF OF WALL STREET. But It’s also at this point that one begins to notice how much Phillips apes other films. Where THE BIG SHORT was often considered a more tactful, fact-based rendition of Scorsese’s late-career highpoint, WAR DOGS feels lazily derivative, combining narrative beats from the latter two films and LORD OF WAR. That’s not to say that it isn’t entertaining, but Phillips film doesn’t actually add any plot that I haven’t seen in another rags-to-riches-to-rags story.
But what concerned me most about WAR DOGS was whether or not it would glamorize war profiteering. Because at the end of the day, the merits of this film would be completely invalidated if it would ever leave me envious of these two young men who benefit off of the misfortune of entire nations. It was at this point that I began to appreciate Phillips’s treatment of Miles Teller’s character. Though he isn’t half as memorable as Jonah Hill’s, he maintains a paramount function in WAR DOGS’s narrative: disassociating himself from the reckless, glamorized behavior of Jonah Hill.
Cujo: Fully Loaded (one of the first images when you Google WAR DOGS)
Phillips never shows us Jonah Hill having an amazing time with prostitutes and cocaine, though he certainly implies that this is how Hill spends his time. What he does show us is Teller, a young massage therapist whose boring life is turned upside down by a high school friend. Teller’s life is certainly a boring routine, but it’s never awful. And though it seems ridiculous that Teller’s girlfriend is an eastern-European bombshell, it serves as a statement: You can still live a happy life with the woman of your dreams without exploiting other people. This is a statement that a film like SCARFACE blatantly avoids, and is frankly why I have little respect for it.
WAR DOGS has a vested interest in establishing Tony Montana as a mythological being in the eyes of Jonah Hill. It’s actually kind of brilliant. In doing so, we immediately understand what kind of delusional nutcase Hill is portraying. Teller plays the audience member, intimidated and disapproving of this lifestyle. And though WAR DOGS would certainly profit from an uptick in satire, I have to give it credit where credit is due. For a film that had an advertising campaign that seemed to shamelessly embellish the lifestyle of a gun runner, WAR DOGS is surprisingly chastising of their actions.
Additionally, the film’s agenda is to inform viewers that companies like Jonah Hill’s AEY never get the punishment they deserve. This should by all means have put Phillips in a tight spot. How do you chastise these characters but still show that they get off scot-free? But instead of painting himself into a corner, Phillips concludes his narrative by sidelining Jonah Hill, the character whose fate should make our blood boil. Instead, we see Teller, a young man who has lived a life of lavish excess, only to realize that it was a horrible mistake. The fact that Phillips decides to end his narrative on a relatively happy note is a little upsetting, but maybe that’s exactly the point? Once again, it’s all THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, but with less innovation.
Am I not supposed to hate that two war profiteers get away with the crimes they committed? I’d be remiss to say that WAR DOGS isn’t a lazier, tepid clone of THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, failing to be quite as layered and nuanced despite all its vulgarities, but I think it’s an accomplishment all the same that WAR DOGS lets viewers understand just how much horrible behavior a criminal of this caliber can get away with when in partnership with the American military. I can’t say WAR DOGS is a good film, as it really isn’t funny, pointed, or subtle enough to be anything short of forced political commentary. But I’ll take bad comedy with purpose over bad comedy any day.
Miles Teller plays the buffest massage therapist in the nation
While it’s certainly lacking in just about every technical category except for its actors’ charisma, I find myself at odds with Phillips’s film. WAR DOGS isn’t worth the price of admission, but at least he had something to say. He owes a great debt to countless filmmakers of yesteryear, but what really kills it for me is that as I sat in this American movie theatre, I felt the roaring laughter, knowing that I was enjoying a comedy that only existed because people on the other side of the globe were being massacred for America’s benefit. So if we’re going to make political statements on the war on terror, the least we could do is show them some respect. Jeez, I think I need a drink.
Verdict: Do Not Recommend