By Mark Saldana
Rating: 3 (Out of 4 Stars)
Based on the crazy true story, as told by writer Guy Lawson in the book Arms and the Dudes, War Dogs tells a slightly fictionalized version of the events involving two stoner/slackers and how they became arms dealers and scored a multi-million dollar government contract. Adapted by writer Stephen Chin and writer/director Todd Phillips (The Hangover Trilogy), the movie offers an entertaining, intense and biting commentary on the arms business and the shady dealings that go on between dealers and the U.S. military. As decently written as the film is and as exceptional as the performances of the leads are, Phillips disappoints somewhat by presenting his movie without any original style to it. As fascinating as the story is, the film plays like an imitation Scorsese film, a filmmaking trend that is starting to become tiresome and annoying.
Miles Teller stars as David Packouz, a college dropout struggling to make a living as a high-end linen salesman and massage therapist. Frustrated with both jobs and expecting a child with his girlfriend Iz (Ana de Armas), Packouz jumps at the opportunity to join his high school buddy’s growing, but moderately successful business. Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) may be one of David’s oldest friends while growing up, but he often got David into trouble and is considered by David’s family to be a bad influence. Despite his wild and troubled past, David cannot resist the money Efraim is offering him to join his arms business. The two hit some speed bumps along the way and take some major life risks to make some major deals, but their gamble eventually pays off and pays rather well. Even though David and Efraim could easily quit their dangerous business, a juicy government contract lures them into a shady business deal with the not-so-reliable Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper). This questionable partnership, along with Efraim’s penchant for trouble, not only puts their company and lives at risk, but it also could possibly land everyone involved in prison.
The screenplay by Stephen Chin and Todd Phillips is a pretty solid work that offers a great blend of comedy, drama, and intense thrills. The story also makes a smart and disturbing indictment of the arms industry and the corruption that takes place among the entrepreneurs and their government connections. That said, I really wish Phillips had taken a page from a film like The Big Short and presented the story in a more original style and not copied films like American Hustle, The Wolf of Wall Street, Casino, Goodfellas and other Scorsese films or their imitators. As much as the movie engaged me and kept me engrossed, I often find myself distracted by Phillips’ attempts to present the material in a style that has been done and done many times too often. Freeze frames, character narration, rock ‘n roll needle drops and other tropes that are trademarks of this style permeate this movie and it really takes away from an otherwise fascinating story.
Another positive aspect of the film would be the performances by the excellent cast. Miles Teller delivers yet another superb performance as the more likable member of the duo, David Packouz. Teller, who has a natural charisma and talent for both comedy and drama, fills this role perfectly. The same goes for Jonah Hill, who has proven himself as an acting talent capable of excelling in both drama and comedy. Hill, on the other hand, plays the less likable and more duplicitous Efraim Diveroli, a character that obviously cannot be trusted from the get-go. As this character, Hill oozes sleaze and mistrust for the audience, but can turn on the charm beautifully for the characters he needs to fool for dollar rewards. The movie also features solid performances by Ana de Armas, Kevin Pollack, and Shaun Toub. Bradley Cooper also brings some sleaze and dubiosity, to his role as the shadowy Henry Girard. His screen time is limited, but his performance makes a big impact on the film.
I just wish Todd Phillips had put more effort into telling this amazing story with more originality because it definitely dulls the impact it should have. As much as I absolutely love Martin Scorsese (favorite director) and his style of filmmaking, I want to see something different from younger filmmakers under his influence. Originality in film shouldn’t just come from the story and plot material, but should also go into how the story is told. That is what sets certain films apart and keeps them from being redundant in an already somewhat unoriginal cinema climate.