War Dogs is the cinematic damage done by every dude that doesn’t get the point of a movie. Every guy who watched Fight Club and thought it would be a ripping good idea to get into a basement and beat the shit out of his fellow man. Every bro who looked at Jordan Belfort or Gordon Gekko and decided that now was the time to complete the application to business school. Every moron with a Scarface poster proudly displayed next to that poster with the girl’s asses covered in Pink Floyd album artwork.
If you are that guy, War Dogs is right up your alley, because it’s the absolute embodiment of every single time someone missed the narrative point in favor of justifying their own shitty behavior. Director Todd Phillips has brought us a film that is two hours of an air jerk intermixed with inducing eye-rolls so epic that only “O Fortuna” may properly score them.
Based on a Rolling Stone article, War Dogs is the true-enough tale of David Packouz (Miles Teller) and Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), two bros who knew each other growing up and get reconnected during the funeral of a mutual acquaintance. Packouz is in a bad place, directionless in life and working as a massuer in Miami (which he hates), and Diveroli offers him a proposition. He’s been dealing guns and he wants Packouz to join in his fledgling defense supplier business, AEY.
You see, we’re in the heat of the Iraq War, specifically after we’ve toppled Hussein and we’re rebuilding the Iraqi military, which means there’s a whole hell of a lot of supplies needed. AEY build their business off picking up the crumbs, the small contracts that compound on top of each other that the big supplier won’t touch. This is the rise of AEY, two dudes supplying small amounts of weaponry over and over again.
It’s also about how fucking dope as hell it must be to do that, totally doing a bunch of drugs and getting sweet-ass apartments and having hot girls all around you and totally make a ton of money.
As you can tell, I’m not much of a fan.
I’m not saying that every movie must absolutely unblinkingly criticize its characters and be a full-throated anti-war screed. No, subtlety is absolutely fine, as the movies Goodfellas and Wolf of Wall Street often lose on those ripping them off. It also doesn’t necessarily have to criticize its characters, especially if the filmmaker may actually agree with their actions.
Rather, it’s that War Dogs is so absolutely shallow in its admiration for its leads and doesn’t show us who don’t entertain their fantasies why we might sympathize with them. Sure, Packouz has a wife and a kid and tries to get out of the business, but he willingly lies to said wife and kid and doesn’t question what he’s doing until it starts to have a personal effect on him, a move that doesn’t follow because War Dogs never gives us a reason to actually care about a character who has nothing below the surface besides base greed.
And yeah, Hill’s Diveroli is supposed to be a piece of shit. But here’s the thing, the only action he actually takes in this film that makes him a piece of shit are interpersonal actions against characters that we don’t care about. Yeah, he’s a criminal warmonger, but so is everyone else and he was cool af until he totally broke the bro code.
He’s the Martin Scorsese “Devil-On-The-Shoulder.” A character that’s there to bring our hero into the underworld through whispers and seduction and eventually be outed as a monster that had our character slide into moral decay. He’s Pesci and Deniro, he’s Matthew McConaughey. The problem is that Hill not only never gives that early reveal, that moment where you first perceive the evil this character can enact because the film is never willing to actually look at him that way.
We essentially get left looking at a film that has two avaricious sociopaths at its core and never bothers to make that reveal, rather content to let them continue to look cool. Is it the kind of movie that has a Dan Bilzerian cameo and the actual real-life David Packouz make an appearance? You bet it is. It’s so content with being cool and shit that it never bothers to think. It’s not evil, it’s dumb, so concerned with a very “bro” idea of power and fame and money that it can’t see the whole forest it’s erected.
Which feels like a solid enough lead-in to my other major problem with War Dogs. It belongs to a genre that has increasingly begun to piss me off, that being the post-Scorsese crime film. This is a group of films that absolutely seek to play the imitation game with his work, copping his unique understanding of crime and the criminals who do it, yet never seem to understand why anything Scorsese does actually works.
Partially, it’s because imitators of his filmmaking often lose sight of the ideas behind it. To be fair, it’s tough to imitate a guy who still feels more energetic and alive than 95% of working filmmakers who are decades younger than he is. But imitation of his filmmaking never understands the subtle underpinnings that make it work. The ironic or unexpected juxtaposition with his songs. The deliberate sloppiness of his structure combined with the absolute control of his camera. His ability to get actors to straddle emotional lines that work with the high-wire sense of morality in the stories he tells. His sensitivity that always lets him get at the core of why bad people do bad things, but still absolutely be willing to call them bad people.
The directors who imitate Scorsese, and Todd Phillips fits every bad trope of them with this picture, pick up on his tricks. His voiceover, his structure, his fancy camera work, his use of classic rock are all game but none of his substance is. Scorsese is the king of style informing substance, and every director who tries seems to forget that. It’s not like Spielberg imitators, who often imitate his philosophy or his mood or his sense of wonder. Scorsese imitation makes even good directors look like film students, and bad directors look like failing film students.
I’ll leave what end of the spectrum Phillips falls into up to you, but the fact of the matter is that it’s bad imitation at its best. This is a film of thin gruel, all style and negative substance. A film that uses politics as a backdrop and not as a part of its story. Seriously, how the fuck do you tell a story about the Iraq War and not feel like you have a damned point of view?!
Hill turns in a fine performance and I’m sure there will be aspects that work for some. But I can’t get behind this. It’s a film that just doesn’t think, doesn’t want to think, wants to keep the party going even though it’s long over.
It’s a film made by someone who profoundly missed the point of every movie it’s imitating because they’re too shallow to examine, the logical endpoint of “I got into stock trading because of Gordon Gekko.” It almost makes sense the poster for this one is just the Scarface poster, because that’s all this movie is. People playing pretend at things they shouldn’t be playing with no ideas about what that might mean.
Dumb at its best moments and brainless at its worst, War Dogs is just a film of nothing there.