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Review: War Dogs (2016)

War Dogs (2016)

Directed by: Todd Phillips

Premise: Based on a true story. During Operation Iraqi Freedom, two young men with no combat experience (Jonah Hill and Miles Teller) secure million dollar government contracts to supply the United States armed forces with weapons.

What Works: When War Dogs works it is a freewheeling romp. The movie is led by Miles Teller and Jonah Hill and Hill does this kind of role well; his character in War Dogs is reminiscent of his parts in The Wolf of Wall Street and Superbad. Hill is, as usual, very funny and he largely carries the movie. War Dogs is packed with references to 1983’s Scarface. Jonah Hill’s character is obsessed with that movie and his performance channels the energy of Al Pacino’s Tony Montana. Scarface was as much about capitalism as it was about drugs and War Dogs does something similar with war profiteering. Hill’s character and his partner played by Miles Teller are living out a version of the American dream and like Al Pacino’s drug kingpin in Scarface the entrepreneurs of War Dogs are consumed by greed that ultimately brings down their empire. The subject of War Dogs is quite serious but the filmmakers understand the inherent absurdity of the story and they emphasize the humor. The comedy of War Dogs is mordant and vulgar but it’s appropriate to the subject matter. In that respect, War Dogs is one of the movies that best captures the Iraq War. The story of these two young men conning their way into the war industry is a perfect match for a war that was sold on disingenuous grounds and mismanaged into a catastrophe.

What Doesn’t: War Dogs has the potential to be a great movie but it is held back by a few critical flaws. Among the main shortcomings of this film is the lack of spark between Jonah Hill and Miles Teller. The two actors don’t ever seem like they are in the same movie and Teller is not a very engaging presence. He’s not given anything interesting to do and the filmmakers don’t give themselves over to the gangster qualities of their story. These characters are horrible people in a shady business but unlike The Wolf of Wall Street or Scarface this movie never indulges the fun of being bad and getting away with it. Instead the filmmakers of War Dogs try to maintain some hold on a traditional moral perspective and Miles Teller is forced to be the traditional good guy who aims for redemption. He’s given a family life that’s supposed to make Teller’s character relatable but it just makes him boring. Teller’s character has a baby with his girlfriend (Ana de Armas) and starts running guns out of financial desperation. He lies to his better half about his new business venture and when the truth is exposed there are no consequences. But that doesn’t really matter because their romance has even less spark than Teller’s friendship with Jonah Hill’s character. War Dogs also fails as a story of moral corruption. The implicit point of this movie is that armed conflict creates economic opportunities but that war is also a corrupting force that debases everything it comes into contact with. There is a hint of that in the way Teller’s character and his girlfriend are seduced from their antiwar politics and become war profiteers but that transformation is not convincing. Instead of dramatizing the change in character and letting the ideas emerge from the story these points are spelled out through narration that isn’t very interesting. War Dogs is clumsily paced. A lot of movies based on true stories tend to suffer from a lack of focus in which a bunch of incidents are strung together and one event doesn’t lead to the next. War Dogs suffers from that flaw and the movie doesn’t come to a conclusion so much as it just stops.

Bottom Line: There is some anarchic fun in War Dogs but the movie is a letdown because it never fully realizes its potential. Jonah Hill is in top form but rest of the picture lacks his conviction.

Episode: #609 (August 28, 2016)