I’ve been a little hesitant to see War Dogs. I originally had planned to see it last weekend, but I loved Kubo and the Two Strings so much, I instead opted to see that one a second time. I like the cast and crew behind War Dogs (which is why I ultimately decided to go for it), but war movies often hold little appeal for me, personally. And war comedies can be even tougher. I saw Whiskey Tango Foxtrot earlier in the year and enjoyed Tina Fey and Margot Robbie but ultimately had a hard time with the film as a whole. War films tend to repeat the same themes, cover the same ground, and have generally become a repetitive experience that I also can’t relate to. However, on those occasions when the premise and execution are both truly unique, wonderful things can happen (Bridge of Spies was one of my favorite 2015 films). The marketing for War Dogs just oozed the Whiskey Tango Foxtrot vibe to me, though, so I sat down to watch it with modest enthusiasm, at best, yet with an open mind, as always.
I found War Dogs to have a little more energy than Whiskey Tango Foxtrot but be ultimately less entertaining, which was precisely my fear. When this film is advertised and marketed as a “comedy” (including invoking director Todd Phillips’s connection to his Hangover series), understand that it’s a comedy in the same way that Greek comedies were comedies. It’s not particularly funny (with the exception of a line here or there); it just has a tone that’s too light for it to be considered a drama.
The film is based on a true story and follows arms dealers David Packouz (Miles Teller) and Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) as they profit off of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan by selling weapons to whoever will buy them. As they work themselves up the ladder, the bigger they get, the tougher the challenges of the business become.
On one hand, the film really shines a bright light on the specific reasons why the NRA and others in their corner would be in full support of war. If one didn’t really get it before, they will after watching War Dogs. It’s all about money. There are no ethics involved from anyone in the entire process. All that matters is how much money these people make. So, in a way, it functions as a sort of public service announcement just months before a potentially terrifying presidential election here in the United States (if you aren’t from the States please don’t associate me with the insanity going on, here. I’m not a part of it, I swear!).
But on the other hand, despite the best efforts of Teller and Hill, the film just isn’t very fun to watch. I actually found myself looking at my watch, which I virtually never do when watching a film in the theater. I’ll say that I enjoyed seeing another chapter in the continuing maturation of Miles Teller as an actor. I actually enjoyed him as a young Reed Richards/Mr. Fantastic in last year’s Fantastic Four (aside from the miscast Toby Kebbel, the cast was not one of the problems with that movie) and he would have been the talk of the industry following Whiplash had J.K. Simmons not given one of the greatest performances of all-time in that very same film. Even then, Teller continued to earn praise for his contributions which is a huge credit to his emerging talent. Here in War Dogs, he comes across as a full-blown adult for the first time and I bought it completely. He carries a confidence and assuredness alongside a vulnerability that communicates the knowledge that he’s capable of great things, but he also has much to lose.
Jonah Hill is good, too, but he plays virtually the same a**hole-who-loves-money-and-drugs that he played in The Wolf of Wall Street. He plays it well. It takes remarkably little effort to hate Efraim in this film. But at this point, he can coast through this part. He’s come a long way as a talent, too, and I’m ready to see him break further out of his comfort zone.
Beyond that, there’s really not much to see here. Teller and Hill take a plodding script and pour as much life into it as they can possibly muster. The true issue here is something that I’ve alluded to, before: There are no propulsive elements to provide the story with forward momentum. There should always be unresolved story threads or character beats in order to let the audience know that the film is building towards a climax. There is no sense of build, here. It’s just a giant first act that falls into a sudden finale.
War Dogs has it’s strong points – particularly Teller – but it’s essentially a hour’s worth of story stretched into a two-hour film that feels like it’s three hours long. It gets an important message out there at an important time for an audience that might otherwise not be as educated on the topic as they could be. But it does so in a largely uncompelling fashion, as the viewer can’t help but question what’s keeping the movie going. So, while I appreciate the efforts and intentions of the talent involved, my time would have been better spent on a third viewing of Kubo.
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