Trust no one. That was my main takeaway from the Jonah Hill and Miles Teller bro flick War Dogs, not because it’s necessarily the moral of the story (that would probably be don’t trust your shady friend who sells guns, duh are you an idiot), but because plenty of people have said it was “great” and “fun” and “like Goodfellas.” So I put my prejudice aside for this comedy slash drama about two arms dealer bros directed by The Hangover director, Todd Phillips, but once again my gut instinct was correct.
I’m not sure what kind of shit you need to be smoking to have fun during War Dogs, but it was neither great nor fun, and yeah, comparing it to Goodfellas is like saying Loaded Weapon is like Lethal Weapon. Sure, there’s voiceover, freeze frames, and morally reprehensible characters, but it reads more like a parody film than an inspired one. But if I could pinpoint the target demographic for this movie, it would be: bros who had a Scarface poster in their dorm room (you know the kind, perhaps you are the kind).
If it wasn’t obvious from the Scarface-referencing poster, the movie hits you over the head a few more times with Jonah Hill’s character, Efraim Diveroli—a man-child with an actual Scarface poster in his office—who lives out his Tony Montana fantasies by getting into the international arms dealing business and convinces his childhood best friend David Packouz (Miles Teller) to become his business partner. “War Dogs” refers to bottom-feeders like Efraim and David, who profit off the war without serving in the army themselves. They figure out a way to make a load of money off the “crumbs” of the business, cashing in not just hundreds of thousands, but eventually millions, selling ammo to the U.S. government during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars circa the Bush administration. They set up their own company AEY, Inc. (it’s not an acronym for anything) and get so ahead of themselves that this cautionary tale eventually takes them straight in the middle of Iraq’s Triangle of Death, an area that saw the most violence during the U.S. military’s occupation. It’s actually a fascinating story (based on Guy Lawson’s Rolling Stone article) of how two just-out-of-college kids got into the biz, and it piggybacks on the well-loved American genre of watching really shitty dudes get away with really shitty things. If it had stuck to that, War Dogs could have been at least a mild success.
Phillips, who not only made the Hangover movies but also Old School and Starksy & Hutch, seems to have gotten inspiration from Adam McKay transforming from funny-guy Anchorman director to Oscar-nominated Big Short director, and put all his faith in Martin Scorsese muse Jonah Hill, turning him into both the comic relief and the Leo of his version of Wolf of Wall Street. Miles Teller, who is a good actor on the way to becoming a great actor (if the stars align), is given so little to do in what is essentially The Jonah Hill Show that his name on the bill becomes nothing more than filler. In a less serious movie, they would have made a good buddy comedy pair. In a more serious movie, they also would have made a good dramatic pair. In this movie, they barely make a pair.
Unfortunately, Phillips completely misses the mark tonally. “Comedy,” “drama,” and “war”—the three tags on War Dog’s IMDB page—rarely mix well together, and Phillips fails to hold off on Hill’s body humor (which he does well) to tell a story that’s both complex, fascinating, and just satirical enough to eventually let us break away from the fantasy (being bad without the consequences). It instead becomes a dizzy flurry of borrowed images and comedic freeze frames, whether it is Jonah Hill looking just plain silly in his open-collared shirts and designer sunglasses or whether it’s a Wolf of Wall Street-like montage of cocaine and mansplaining (sorry but voiceovers in bro flicks that are like “this is how we pulled it off” feels so mansplainy? Just me?). Not to mention, the musical cues in the film are the corniest in recent cinematic history. I first noticed it when the two were boarding a plane and Iggy Pop started crooning “I am the passenger,” and then when “Ooh Las Vegas” played in, yep you guessed it, LAS VEGAS, but then I fully lost it when Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” came on as the derpy duo was saved by U.S. choppers during a car chase shootout.
The music is just the tip of the iceberg about what makes this movie so goddamn unbearable though. While Hill plays the worst kind of dude—the kind who goes to a Middle Eastern country and calls someone “Aladdin,” or asks a girl he just met at the club for a blowjob in his car—Teller’s David is made to believe he was just a good dude who was too naive and got swept up in this whole mess. As a massage therapist he makes no money, his ridiculous bedsheet business is going nowhere, his wife is pregnant, and suddenly he’s offered easy money. Of course he takes it! But David’s wife (an underused Ana de Armas) plays nothing more than a nagging presence, and it’s not until he gets in deep shit with the bigger, badder arms dealer (played by a Jeffrey Dahmer glasses-wearing Bradley Cooper who expresses soullessness through his comically buggy eyes) that he decides to get out of the game, crawling back to his old lifestyle. It’s all surface-level motivation for these characters, and when the credits start rolling, you’re left wondering, What even was the point of it all?
At the end of the day, this movie is really just about two dinguses who make a lot of money, get away with for a little bit, then pay a small price, with no compelling meat in between. The whole thing is just, “Look how funny Jonah Hill is in this scene!” and “Lol what a terrible guy!” which I guess could be enjoyable for those who have The Hangover withdrawal, but without going full absurd comedy, Todd Phillips is left with a shallow bro-out session that has nothing substantial to say, especially when politics are inevitably involved. War Dogs wants to be The Big Short, it wants to circle The Wolf of Wall Street, but even his turn-off-your-brain flicks are more compelling and less corny than this affair.