War Dogs (dir. Todd Phillips)

Posted: August 26, 2016 in Uncategorized

“War Dogs” is the story of two guys who sold weapons to the U.S. government during the Iraq War. The Bush administration, facing flack from giving most of the contracts to Halliburton and other companies with connections to the administration, opened up bidding on government contracts to any outfit willing to make an offer, no matter how big or small. Most of the contracts were for large things, like tanks and missiles, and the big defense contractors like Lockheed Martin snatched those up. But the small contracts, the ones for a couple of hundred guns or some rounds of ammunition, those were too small for the big boys to bother with, and that allowed people like Efraim (Jonah Hill) and David (Miles Teller) to accumulate big bucks selling those instruments of war and death to their government. They profited off of the outsourcing of instruments of war. Now, doesn’t this sound like a story that could really take the U.S. government, the military-industrial complex, and the Iraq War to task? Well…”War Dogs” isn’t really interested in politics, except on a superficial level. No, the movie is mainly concerned with whether the rules within a broken system are followed, and not really about the system itself. The film doesn’t really have a problem with the system, and it barely discusses the Iraq War, except as a backdrop for the main character’s business opportunity. When the main characters in the film are punished, it’s for breaking an embargo (a rule), and trying to not pay two business associates. If this film is attacking anything, it’s attacking business partners who double-cross each other. The business itself the film seems agnostic on.

When the film begins, David is a massage therapist with a girlfriend (Ana de Armos) who is unexpectedly pregnant. The girlfriend, named Iz, is only in the film to give David a motive to get into the business, a reason to keep things secret, and as a reason to later achieve redemption. Her character is an empty cipher to drive David’s character arc, and it’s a shame she’s not more developed than that, because de Armos brings a sweet and likeable screen presence to an empty character, indicating that with a fully fledged character she could have really been something in this film. Oh well. At the same time, David runs into an old middle school friend, Efraim, who is already doing small gun and equipment sales to the government and wants David to be his partner to expand his business, AEY Inc (the letters don’t mean anything). Seeing the money he could be making, David joins Efraim despite being opposed to the Iraq War, and before you know it, David and Efraim are trying to get a shipment of Italian guns to Iraq after Italy banned the export of weapons to Iraq. This involves David and Efraim flying to Jordan, the country they are able to get the guns to be shipped to, and driving it into Iraq themselves to complete the deal.

The film is directed by Todd Philips, known mostly for comedies like “Old School”, “Road trip”, and “The Hangover”, so it’s no surprise that “War Dogs” is a legitimately funny film. A lot of the humor just comes from seeing two twenty-somethings with no real grasp of world politics and international business dealings try to procure and deliver massive quantities of arms to the government for war. Efraim is a pretty solid salesman and bullshit artist, and David is intelligent but also more of a worrier and a realist, leading to an Odd Couple-like push and pull between the two, and very different reactions to difficulties or oddities place in their war. There are some silly jokes too, like a man playing “Don’t Fear the Reaper” to an old folk’s home, but most of the humor is the result of placing relatively normal people into the extraordinary situations their business takes them in.

It’s pretty clear that the film is attempting to emulate some other, better movies. The voice over, fast pace, and general let’s-make-something-illegal-and-dangerous-look-fun style of Scorcese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” is here. The subject matter of this film overlaps a bit with Andrew Niccol’s underrated film “Lord of War” about an illegal gun trafficker as well. The difference is that both of those films, while being very stylish, had messages about their subject matter. “War Dogs” is a bit shallower and doesn’t really seem to indict the business the main characters are in, so much as it indicts their specific conduct within it.

The biggest chunk of the plot involves David and Efraim taking up a very large contract for the government, the centerpiece of which is 100,000 rounds of AK-47 ammunition (to arm the Afghani people against the Taliban). To obtain such a large order of ammo, they make contact with Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper, very good in such a little role), a real-deal illegal arms dealer who is on the terror watch list. Since he is barred from doing business with the U.S. government directly, Girard is willing to sell the ammunition, which he has obtained from old Soviet-era stockpiles in Albania, to David and Efraim, which they can then sell to the U.S. at a profit. David has reservations, but they ultimately agree with to the deal. The problem becomes when they find out the ammo is not Soviet or Albanian, but actually Chinese in origin. The U.S. has had an arms embargo against China ever since the Tiananmen Square massacre, and so the government will not buy Chinese bullets. That’s when the law breaking comes in, and David and Efraim come up with the bright idea to repackage the bullets to both hide their origin and put them in lighter containers to cut down on their shipping costs.

This makes the business far more dangerous, plus Efraim becomes increasingly greedier, and double-crosses start happening. All of these details, including how their plan works and the nuts and bolts of it, are interesting to watch and unfold, but in a film that deals with such big issues it’d be nice if the film’s main concern was maybe the war, or guns, of the flow of weapons, or the business of war…and not just Capitalists suffering because they jerk each other around. This movie is okay with the status quo, it just wants the shitty game to be played by the rules.

“War Dogs” is an enjoyable, fun, and entertaining film with a kick ass soundtrack and interesting subject matter. It’s just really damn shallow, and it’s obvious the filmmakers thought this film was of a higher quality than it is, judging by such pretentious touches like beginning sequences with title cards featuring quotes of dialogue you will later here in that sequence. I saw a Twitter review that compared these to “Frasier”, and they were right. Also, the voiceover is pretty lousy in that it tells without showing, and exists to awkwardly push the movie forward from scene to scene when the movie fails to have a more organic and less awkward way of propelling itself forward.

It’s a perfectly good, funny movie. It also has one hell of a great last scene, and the closing credits end with one of my favorite songs: “Everybody Knows” by Leonard Cohen. But this subject matter was ripe for something deeper, more intelligent, and just better. B.

 

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