WAR DOGS – Review
The kids are heading back to school, it’s getting a touch cooler (the multiplex is still a great place to beat the heat), the superheroes have packed it in (for a couple of months), so are we ready to return to the Middle East, or at least the big conflicts in the sand? That’s how we started out the year, with Michael Bay’s Benghazi docudrama. Well, there were two little films that followed, set in that hostile local. Two “dramadies”, one fact, the other fiction, to be precise. Tom Hanks was a “fish-out-of-water” in HOLOGRAM FOR THE KING, while Tina Fey was a TV news reporter (based on a real person) in WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT. Yes, this new flick is a comedy, or at least that’s what the near constant onslaught of trailers and TV spots have been hammering home for the last several months. Hey, it’s from the director of the HANGOVER trilogy and it stars a full-fledged member of Judd Apatow’s ensemble. Now to be fair, the Middle East isn’t the only global territory that’s “marked” by these two self titled WAR DOGS. They’re bouncing across the globe, but we first meet one of them in…
Albania, around ten years ago, and David Packouz (Miles Teller) is having the worst morning of his life. Just how did he get in this spot? Well, we’ll need to flash back a few years to the Miami area. David’s barely making ends meet as a personal masseuse, schlepping his foldable cot back and forth to the homes of the wealthy. He’s ambitious, so he buys high-quality wholesale bed sheets and blankets, thinking he can sell them to the many retirement centers. This plan is a bust and the apartment he shares with his gorgeous gal Iz (Ana de Armas) is clogged with cases of the stuff. Then, at the funeral for an old school chum, Dave re-connects with an old pal, Efraim Diveroli (Joanh Hill), who is living the high life, having made a fortune selling high powered weaponry on-line. But now Efraim hopes to become a major player, thanks to the conflict in Iraq. After the scandals over “no bid” arms deals, the doors have been opened to all military suppliers, thanks to a government website listing all weapons needs and entertaining bids from anyone. Efraim offers to make David a partner. When Iz becomes pregnant, David accepts, but he lies to her about the new job, since Iz despises war. Their company, “AEY” scores it first big sale, a huge shipment of Beretta handguns to Iraq. When local laws strand the guns in Jordan, they guys fly in and personally transport the guns via a beaten-up truck to its destination (at great, great peril). They’re ready for a much bigger deal when AEY lands a 300 million dollar contract to outfit the new Afghan army. Efraim and David head to the big arms show in Vegas to find a supplier. They get more than they bargained for when David runs into the shadowy (he’s on the “watch list”) arms dealing legend Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper). He agrees to broker a sale with the government of Albania. They need to quickly unload literally tons of weapons and ammo. After traveling there, the guys believe everything’s on the “up and up”. Of course, many problems arise, needing David to stay there to supervise, leading to that awful morning in the first scene. Are these twenty-something hot shots in way over their heads?
Teller gives another complex performance in a worthy addition to his impressive resume (THE SPECTACULAR NOW, WHIPLASH). He brings an everyman vulnerability to Packouz. He’s a decent person, who chooses the wrong path, that of quick returns reaped from the misery of others. Teller shows us that David is keenly aware of the danger that awaits each step forward, a man full of regret and guilt over deceiving his love. He’s truly conflicted, unlike his partner Efraim, played as an uncontrollable force of nature by the energetic Hill. We think that this role will be one of his blustery buffoons, but Hill surprises us by going into very dark territory. Efraim creates a doppelgänger to seduce every new “mark”, but once the cash and drugs are flowing, his inner demons of greed and paranoia are unleashed. He’ll turn on anyone within striking range. In a terrific supporting performance, Cooper also flips his charming screen persona on its ear, with this true “lord of darkness”, digging his claws into the brash duo, and dragging them down into the fiery pits. Hiding behind massive, tinted glasses. Cooper’s Girard is cold, dead-eyed evil incarnate, a ghost suddenly materializing to wreak havoc. Kudos to de Armas for making Iz the strong-willed conscience of David, and to the ever-dependable Kevin Pollak as Efraim’s affable, clueless investor.
And bravo to director/ co-writer Todd Phillips for leaving the cinematic “comfort zone” of gross-out, hard-partying comedies, to deliver a film with a stinging satiric edge, one with an unapologetic political slant. In the film’s opening segment he fires his own “hypocracy-seeking” movie missile at Washington’s power players (and one recent presidency) with the clever use of graphics showing us a solider’s cost with price tags over every set of “boots on the ground”. Yes, he does overuse the freeze frame effect for emphasis and the chapter titles using bits of dialogue can be cloying and clumsy. And while we’re at it, the slo-mo shots of smoking (look at that big bong!) and snorting could be severely trimmed back (they like their weed, we get it!). But the film truly skewers those in charge thanks to the razor-sharp script Phillips co-wrote with Stephen Chin and Jason Smilovic based on a Rolling Stone article by Guy Lawson. While the David/Iz story might seem a distracting subplot (like those couples helped out by the trio in the MGM Marx Brothers flicks), Phillips uses the scenes to show the devastating cost of David’s descent. Cinematographer also turns in excellent work, giving each locale its own color palette: the Middle East is rust and orange-tinted sand, while Albania is a soggy blue. This flick, much like the recent GHOSTBUSTERS reboot, is another example of a film ill-served by its marketers. The trailers were selling a wacky, zany “bro-mance”, but WAR DOGS is a tough look at those real animals who would profit from tragedy.
3.5 Out of 5