After a busy old July and August it’s back to reviewing for you fine folks, and the first chance I’ve had to see something not already covered by this fine site was director Todd Phillips’ (Old School, The Hangover) new offering War Dogs. Over the last few weeks the trailer for this has been popping up in multiplexes the country over, and seemed to illicit the same “Meh” response from all that saw it. So it was with low expectations and a real lack of alternatives that I ventured forth to catch what seems to have been marketed as “The Hangover with Guns”.
The basic plot is that during the second Iraq war, the US military was caught handing out all their contracts to their friends and families, so a new website is created to show all the upcoming procurement contracts that were coming up, and allow small businesses to bid on them. Based on a real events, this is a story of how two twenty-something guys manage to land a $300 million contract to supply arms to the Afghan Military via the Pentagon.
As you can see from this setup, this isn’t the slapstick, gross-out comedy that the trailer implied, instead it’s a surprisingly well acted and astute take on the very dicey practises of war for profit that made the US the country it is today. Our gateway to this tale is Miles Teller (Whiplash, Fant4stic) as the almost doe-eyed innocent, if an arms dealer could ever be described as such, David Pakouz. As we first get to know him he’s a masseuse and wannabe businessman, trying to sell luxury bed-sheets to nursing homes in Florida, a task that is going nowhere fast. Through a coincidence he’s reintroduced to his childhood friend, and impressively slimy gun dealer, Efraim Diveroli, played with a greasy glee difficult not to be entranced with by Jonah Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street, 21 Jump Street). Through this David is roped into the Arms trade by Efraim, and through a series of deals, misfortune, and trips to war-zones, ends up seeing how shady the world really is.
This is not Phillips usual fare, and although the situations are at times outlandish, and there are laughs to be had, the film hits a much more thoughtful and serious tone than you might expect. The fact that this has a backbone of truth running through it, and that Efraim and, to a lesser extent, David are shown to be as unlikable as they should be is played very well. Even David’s pangs of conscience give an insight into the world they inhabit. When the surprisingly intimidating Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle), playing a dealer more than happy to trade with both sides, shows up with a deal of a lifetime for the boys, Efraim’s plan to calm David’s reservations by pointing out that they are there to deal with the people that the US Government can’t rings so true it stays with you long after the credits roll. The fact that this is all David needs to push back his misgivings also reminds us that these are not good guys.
On the down side, the themes, although certain sound-bites may stay with you, are a bit too underplayed here. The hard edge of cynicism which this material needs is missing, so unless you are already in the mindset that the undertones are hinting at, most of it will either be missed, or forgotten about once you leave the screening. Also, it has to be noted that David Pakouz does get a much more sympathetic ride in the movie than an International Arms Dealer probably should, but seeing as the real David has a part in the movie, you can guess why that is.
So should you venture out on a cool autumn evening and catch this whilst it’s still in cinemas? Actually, you probably should. The direction has some nice touches, although it never comes across as flashy, and our leads carry the film well. In the past I’ve only really enjoyed Teller in Whiplash, but he does well here, and Hill continues to show his versatility. Cooper has barely a cameo in War Dogs, but does a good job bringing some real menace to the screen.
True this is no documentary, such as The Notorious Mr Bout or Merchants of War, but sometimes that isn’t the best way to get the points this film is trying to get across to a new audience. It’s also much more accessible than 2005’s Lord of War, with the almost accidental way these two end up at the big table lending a more human element to it. Add in the themes of friendship and betrayal, and you’ve got a fairly intriguing night out at the flicks. It’s not for everyone, but if you like your international politics with a side of drama, and a dash of humour, you’ll be barking up the right tree.
- an accessible story for an important topic.
- Jonah Hill continuing to prove the doubters wrong.
- a very Strong Bradley Cooper cameo.
- the lack of a hard edge.
- an easy ride for an Arm’s Dealer.