Todd Phillips has made a career of crafting comedies with a darker slant than most. While that has certainly led to mighty successes, including 2009’s Golden Globe-winning The Hangover, it has also allowed for such colossal misfires as the two atrocious sequels to that acclaimed film. With his latest effort, War Dogs, Phillips has brought that style to the true story of gun runners David Packouz and Efraim Diveroli. By crafting a deeply flawed but ultimately entertaining film, it represents a small but meaningful step in the right direction for the once respected filmmaker.
Opening with a hilarious and insightful comment on the United States’ “war economy”, War Dogs then introduces the audience to Packouz, a professional masseuse who’s only hope of success is selling high-end blankets to nursing homes. That is, until he reunites with Diveroli, his former best friend who moved away nearly a decade before. Efraim offers David what seems like the opportunity of a lifetime: a six-figure job at Efraim’s arms dealing company, where they find and acquire bite-size but lucrative contracts for the U.S. military.
After rising through the ranks of the business, Efraim and David land their highest profile contract yet, the now infamous “Afghan Deal”, which entails providing nearly all of the equipment required to develop the fledgling Afghan military.
War Dogs is at its best as a scathing satire of U.S. policy during the War on Terror. The script allows much of the film’s comedy to arise from real-world idiocy, creating several moments of gut-busting hilarity that never feel out-of-place in what is a fairly dramatic picture in the end.
The humor works well in large part, thanks to the caliber of the performances. Jonah Hill shines as Diveroli, extending his stream of excellent turns with his best work since 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street. He perfectly capturing the sliminess of Efraim, particularly in the film’s final act. Miles Teller is solid as well, at times coming off a bit too clean and bland for this notorious criminal. In a brief but memorable role, Bradley Cooper is reliably fantastic as Henry Gerard, a gun smuggler whose brutal ruthlessness may even be too much for David and Efraim.
Unfortunately, the satire and performances are let down by Phillips’ direction. His transition from comedy to drama is not nearly as smooth as it should have been. He crafts an uneven picture, paced like the most jarring of rollercoasters, with little to no ramping between broad humor and startling melodrama.
Phillips and co-writer Jason Smilovic also fail to prevent War Dogs from feeling rote. Filling the film with predictable subplots we’ve seen a thousand times before, such as David’s troubled relationship with his always-worrying wife, Iz (Ana de Armas), War Dogs brings little new to the table.
However, the film is nonetheless fascinating. Its examination of modern war, government, and money is endlessly compelling and seldom one-sided.
Todd Phillips’ War Dogs may be incredibly imperfect, since its direction is significantly underwhelming, but the tale of David Packouz and Efraim Diveroli is an immensely engrossing one. The performances of Teller and Hill are more than worthy of it, resulting in an irritatingly uneven effort that somehow never feels unnecessary.