Movie Review: “War Dogs” – New Dog, No Tricks

Written by Jeremiah Greville August 25, 2016

War Dogs - Miles Teller, Jonah Hill

Hey, have you heard about that movie based on the true story of some white dudes who got rich through illegally manipulating a broken system? No, not that one. No, not that one either—that one was great. This one, the disappointing one. Heard of it? It’s called War Dogs, and it’s not very good.

War Dogs is directed by Todd Phillips, whose previous work includes the comedies Old School, Road Trip, and the Hangover Trilogy. It stars Miles Teller as David Packouz and Jonah Hill as Efraim Diveroli, two childhood friends who reunite to start their own business as small-time gun merchants bidding on low-end government contracts. Such small businesses, as we learn in the film, are derisively referred to as war dogs–hence the film’s title. This movie follows their rise and shady business practices, but you won’t really care by the film’s end. War Dogs does little with it’s true-life premise, and makes what could have been an interesting story a dull, tedious slog.

“Do you work for Homeland Security? Relax, bro.”

The first thirty minutes of War Dogs were so limp and lifeless that I was genuinely concerned my relatively quiet popcorn chewing was distracting the other four people in the theatre. There was no soundtrack, no laughs, and barely any attempt at all to capture the interest of the audience. It was the same embarrassment you might have of crinkling a bag a chips at a funeral—I could only hope that my noise wasn’t disturbing the other attendees’ sincere grief. While the movie eventually picked up around the half-way mark, by the time we got there the damage was done: this wasn’t what was advertised in the trailers, and didn’t offer anything revelatory or surprising in place of that broken promise.

War Dogs - Miles Teller, Jonah Hill

This is not the compelling true-life story that was promised, nor is it a rebellious, rock & roll insider look at an oft-unseen world marketplace. War Dogs plays out like a cross between The Wolf of Wall Street and The Big Short, telling the story of characters gaming a broken system for profit while at the same time educating viewers on the system itself. However, while it shares actors, tropes, and structure with those films, it lacks the compelling character work and subtle pacing of the former, and irreverent discourse and humour of the latter. This is a film that takes itself too seriously to be fun or funny, and doesn’t take itself seriously enough to be compelling or dramatic.

“Don’t worry, I have to go first—I’m American”

Jonah Hill does his best Jonah Hill impression throughout, gleaning what he can of the goodwill from his performance in The Wolf of Wall Street and putting it toward his version of the Leonardo DiCaprio role in that same film. He is, at times, genuinely fascinating to watch, but spends most of the film strangely disconnected from the role he’s playing. While we eventually learn that this might be a conscious decision by the filmmakers to showcase Efraim’s character deficits, it nonetheless feels as if Hill is doing an impression of a real person, instead of acting like one.

War Dogs - Miles Teller, Jonah Hill

Miles Teller, on the other hand, is perfectly believable as the cardboard cut-out come to life, David Packouz. While Hill gets top billing as Efraim, David is the real protagonist of the film, and Teller does his best to infuse the character with a bit of life and personality. Unfortunately, the script leaves him stranded with a bland love story and domestic life, and gives very little opportunity for Teller to do anything other than be a blank slate for the audience to identify with.

“Let’s pretend like this is a very difficult decision.”

The lifeless pacing throughout the first act of the film finally starts to pick up when the main characters are forced to leave the U.S to do business in the Middle East. Not only did this sequence feature the first (and almost only) laugh of the film, but it was the first time the question of ‘why are we watching this movie?’ came even close to being answered. Two young men navigating a dangerous part of the world with little experience was infinitely more watchable than two young men at odds with one another through illegal business dealings. I’d like to say that this indicates Todd Phillips was more interested in the international aspects of this film than he was in the relationship aspects, but unfortunately all it seems to imply is that he simply didn’t know the appeal of either. Much time is spent with David’s home life and relationship, yet none of it makes you care for him—or his family—whatsoever. The general rule is if you can’t make a character engrossing, then at least make the action surrounding them entertaining. War Dogs doesn’t seem to either know or care about that rule.

War Dogs - Miles Teller, Jonah Hill

The best and worst thing I can say about this movie is that I believe everyone involved was actually trying their best. No sane filmmaker sets out to make a purposely bad film, and the arduous process behind even the worst Hollywood trash requires a certain level of passion and hard work. There are plenty of missed moments in plenty of sub-standard films, but watching this movie, it was clear that everyone–for the most part–actually gave a damn. And that’s the saddest thing of all, because I don’t think a better version of this movie could exist with the same people involved. This was everyone trying their absolute hardest and coming up short. There are no missed opportunities in this film, because the film itself was the biggest missed opportunity of all.

“What would a bad man do?”

Todd Phillips is a proven comedic director, yet here he has made a comedy that is rarely funny, a drama that barely passes as dramatic, and a film that’s not so much based on a true story as it is the six feet of dirt piled atop that true story’s casket—effectively putting to rest any interest in what should of, on paper, been a fascinating look at two young men defrauding the U.S. Government. While there are things to like in War Dogs, there is little to praise, and even less to recommend. War Dogs takes a compelling true story and wastes it, and the only fraud you’ll be interested in after seeing it was the crime this film committed against your wallet.

My Rating: 4.5/10

War Dogs 2016 Theatrical Poster

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About Jeremiah Greville

Jeremiah Greville is a pretty rad beard that's attached itself to a human face. The beard likes movies, television, comic books, and gentle finger rubs. The human likes pizza and sleep. When they work together, they write reviews. Hope you enjoy them!

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