REVIEW: War Dogs
Miles Teller, Jonah Hill, Bradley Cooper, Ana de Armas
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…this is Goodfellas with Gun Runners…
Between Suicide Squad and now War Dogs, 2016 is officially The Year of the Obvious Needle Drop, with both soundtracks packed to the gills with instantly recognisable classic tracks. But whereas SS‘s soundscape is another symptom of Warners playing desperate catch-up with Marvel following the surprise success of Guardians of the Galaxy‘s schmaltz-tastic tunes, writer and director Todd Phillips (The Hangover) is mining a deeper vein here: War Dogs is his Scorsese picture, although never quite as bold or smart as the Old Master. This is Goodfellas with Gun Runners, right down to the use of a classic ’70s groove over a plot-wrapping montage (although it’s The Who’s Behind Blue Eyes rather than Derek and the Dominos’ Layla).
Based on the Rolling Stone article “Arms and the Dudes” by Guy Lawson, War Dogs is the true-ish story of David Packouz (Miles Teller) and Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), two free-wheeling Miami stoner dudes who make a splash in the world of international arms trading thanks to the Pentagon’s policy of offering up all its contracts for tender on a public website. By canny wheeling and dealing, plus always undercutting their competition, it isn’t long before the pair are bidding for bigger and bigger contracts, culminating in a multi-million dollar deal to outfit the Afghani Army with a vast armory. Of course, as the numbers increase, so does the danger, as they come into the orbit of truly dangerous international criminals, such as Bradley Cooper’s Henry Girard, an upper echelon arms merchant who wants to use them as a cut-out to sell illegal Chinese munitions to the US.
War Dogs is a rise-and-fall narrative, and while it’s genuinely shocking to see the scale of the military-industrial complex from the actual shop floor, there’s not nearly as much condemnation as you might expect. It could be that Phillips expects his audience to be au fait with the cost of war and business after a couple of decades of the 24 hour news cycle, but that still means that any moral objection to our boys’ dabbling in the arms market comes from David’s babymama, Iz (Ana de Armas), who is presented as more an obstacle to fun and profit than any kind of voice of reason. The film goes out of its way to portray David as a good guy who gets caught up in something bigger and darker than him – he’s just a guy who wants to provide for his family – but never condemns him for the end result of his actions which is, let’s face it, a lot of filled body bags. The whole enterprise is too much fun for that kind of introspection.
Efraim Diveroli, on the other hand, is a villain – not because he’s a war profiteer, but because he’s a greedy, untrustworthy slob who can – and does – sell out his best mate if there’s a buck in it. Hill is absolutely fantastic in the role; his (pretty far from actuality, by the way) Efraim is a morbidly obese, sweaty, unctuous, graceless, pig of a man, a figure of pure id, always indulging in food, drugs, booze, sex. He’s an avatar of greed, but the film only condemns him when his flaws impinge upon his personal relationships – there is no societal standard to which he’s held.
And that is, perhaps, the point. Todd Phillips is a cynical guy – you can’t make three Hangover movies without a degree of misanthropy – and it could be that a society which condones mass carnage for profit holds no mores worth adhering to, and so only personal transgressions – the breaching of the Bro Code – matter in the end. This might go sailing over the heads of the target demographic, though, who are having too much fun with Jonah and Miles firing off machine guns and running Berettas into Iraq to notice the subtext – it’s Truffaut’s axiom in action.