Based on a true story, War Dogs has down-on-his-luck good guy David Packouz (Teller) fall in with former high school buddy Efraim Diveroli (Hill), who earns a crust undercutting low-end military contracts. Schooling Packouz in the business, the two, with the help of Bradley Cooper's shady arms dealer, land a whopping three hundred million dollar contract from the US military to arm US allies in Afghanistan…
Like Adam McKay's The Big Short last year, War Dogs has a comedy director tackle meatier issues; Todd Phillips has made a name for himself directing Old School, Due Date and the Hangover series and relishes the opportunity to get stuck into meatier stuff. Scorsese is the obvious reference point here and Phillips squeezes a busy Goodfellas-esque crime drama out of the story with a mixed bag of tunes (CCR's Fortunate Son, Floyd's Wish You Were Here), freeze-frames, slow-motion and narration dotting the running time. He also asks Hill to channel his Wolf of Wall Street character. But unlike Scorsese, Phillips doesn't seem to know where his Big Moments are and can be guilty of ignoring potentially edgy scenarios: At one point the boys drive a truck of munitions to Iraq but only find out after they've driven through the 'Triangle of Death', which kind of torpedoes any potential tension the audience might have felt if they knew that beforehand.
Phillips can't decide whether or not to condemn them or root for them. It bends over backwards to make Teller's Packouz likeable. It's his narration that dominates and acts as a guide - telling us who this is, what that means, etc. - but it's difficult to understand what his moral centre is. Teller is a good guy, the movie says, because he has a beautiful girlfriend and a baby, but that's not enough and the audience doesn’t get to appreciate his supposed fall from grace.
What War Dogs does is damn the system that spawns these opportunists: America is a 'dump' with the garish convention of arms dealers compared to comic-con. Yes, the movie says, this is terrible situation. There's nothing likeable about Hill's Diveroli either: when Teller points out that, after they are shafted on a deal, that for once the American taxpayer is getting a good deal on defence contract, Hill replies, "F**k the American taxpayer." He is capitalism at its worst. "War is economy" is the mantra.
But in coming from nothing and making it big Phillips has a grudging respect for these guys. "This isn’t about being pro-war… this is about being pro-money," Hill says and Phillips seems a-okay with that. Yes, they are profiteers of death, BU they didn't create the situation so why not earn something from it? It makes the problematic Lord Of War, Andrew Niccol's 2005 drama starring Nicolas Cage, morally conflicted in comparison.
Despite all this War Dogs is never dull. It's a busy thing and with a fun Hill running amok it remains entertaining popcorn fodder throughout.