Todd Phillips, several years removed from directorial duties on the third, exhaustive final entry in his Hangover trilogy, has brought about a film that tries to take a semi-serious stab at topical events with mixed results. In something of a transition from comedy to drama-comedy that mirrors director Adam McKay’s work a year earlier on The Big Short, Phillips has created something that does attempt to distance itself from his previous work and, though it succeeds in some ways, can’t help but still feel awash in shades of the crude humor trademark of his filmography up to this point.
But that’s only one issue. There are many others.
The true story of two ambitious twentysomething arms dealers played by Miles Teller & Jonah Hill, War Dogs is a fairly straightforward look at their less-than-scrupulous business activities filled with enough two-man backstabbing, blackmailing and the like to make any fan of 2010’s similarly-themed The Social Network at least somewhat interested. Unfortunately, though neither actor delivers particularly bad performances, neither actor seems to commit 100% to their respective roles as well, which is a disappointment considering their pedigree in recent Oscar nominated entries over the past few years (Hill in 2011’s Moneyball and 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street, Teller with Whiplash). Hill, in particular, gives his character an unusual laugh and seems to be adopting characteristics stolen from his Wolf of Wall Street lead Leonardo DiCaprio, as the drug-fueled head of the weapons company he and Teller establish. The film even features scenes seemingly lifted directly from the DiCaprio masterpiece, such as a moment where Hill fires an innocent employee at his arms company in an explosive fit of rage. He probably exists as the film’s antagonist, and at least in that regard he’s somewhat decent. Teller largely phones in his portrayal, and a generic subplot involving dishonesty towards his family with regards to his profession seems both cliché and slightly out of place. At least both actors know how to shoot angry looks towards one another, which Phillips uses to his advantage numerous times. I suppose most of these shortcomings can be blamed on the dull screenplay, also co-written by Phillips himself, but even an invested cast member will know how to take a lackluster script and do their best. It is here that talent is born, but ultimately Phillips seems content to let the two leads do what they wish before the cameras without so much as a suggestion of how to make their scenes even a bit more compelling.
On a more positive note, the soundtrack is quite good, if a bit scattershot at times in a pseudo-Suicide Squad sort of way. Furthermore, Bradley Cooper, who also helped produce the film and returns to the Phillips camp following his star-making turn in the aforementioned Hangover saga, somehow manages to play a legendary dealer who assists our intrepid leads in their biggest deal yet quite effortlessly, once again putting that trademark Cooper charm on full display while giving his character enough of an edge to throw audiences off somewhat in terms of line delivery and the manner with which he carries his character in his interactions, usually involving Teller. He’s smooth, terrifying, sympathetic and absolutely the most interesting character in the film. Shots of various international locales look excellent and are infused with the right amount of hoo-rah patriotism, even if I highly doubt any of those scenes were filmed on location. The movie even has an interesting ending, proving that War Dogs does get better as it goes along, but not by much.
Though I commend Todd Phillips for something of an about-face in the wake of The Hangover Part III, and though War Dogs is a step in the right direction, it is ultimately a small one. However, I feel there’s still good work left in him-his focus should be not only on tighter writing going forward, but also a cast that genuinely seem to want to be on set, something which The Hangover trilogy surprisingly seemed to have in abundance. I can recommend War Dogs for a one-time viewing or as something to watch if nothing else seems interesting, but even then one might be better off watching any number of documentaries on the actual figures portrayed in this film. It is interesting to note that the real individual Teller plays has a cameo early in the film playing guitar and singing at a nursing home-oddly enough, he looks to be having a great time, and when you compare the joy in his brief appearance to the rest of the downtrodden cast, that’s just plain sad.