For war profiteers, these guys are nowhere as vicious as they need to be to keep us hooked.
A curiously joyless movie that tries to channel the giddy amorality of Dr. Strangelove but forgets to add jokes or dramatic stakes, War Dogs is a major whiff from Hangover trilogy director Todd Phillips, who won’t be graduating to serious material like Anchorman’s Adam McKay did with The Big Short. Based on a real-life rise-and-fall story of a pair of Miami bozos who fell into lucrative Afghanistan arms dealing, the film reunites former high-school buddies David (Miles Teller) and Efraim (Jonah Hill), currently on radically different life trajectories. The former, a failed bedding salesman, hotboxes joints in his car when he’s not massaging flirtatious male clients. The latter stows machine guns in his trunk; he’s an arms supplier with a dorky giggle and a Scarface poster in his office.
Never once do you wonder if our narrator, David, is going to be lured by the wild life (of course he is), and Teller’s delivery is stiff and unconvincing; he’s no Ray Liotta in Goodfellas. Worse, Hill has an egregiously underwritten part: all Hebrew-school gags and playground boasting. When his Efraim becomes a backstabber, it’s as arbitrary as it is obvious. War Dogs is insufficient with these two characters (or maybe it's these two actors), who are neither hapless and schmucky enough to sustain laughs nor venal enough to get us rooting against them. And when Phillips’s regular ace Bradley Cooper shows up—as a scowling war profiteer—it just feels like stunt casting and a missed opportunity for levity.
Boasting a slick look that splits the difference between 1999’s surreal desert fantasia Three Kings and certain high-rolling episodes of TV’s Miami Vice, War Dogs has no visual signature of its own; it also loads up on unsubtle music cues you’ve heard a zillion times before, like the Who’s “Behind Blue Eyes.” Sometimes we’re supposed to believe that David doesn’t care about the battles he’s fueling or the laws he’s breaking; elsewhere, when it’s convenient for the plot, he gets pangs of conscience. The film expects us to keep track of that wavering ethical scorecard, but it doesn’t justify the effort—nor does it pop off nearly enough cynical ammo.
Follow Joshua Rothkopf on Twitter: @joshrothkopf
Cast and crew
Ana de Armas