“War Dogs” Review: All Bark, No Bite

Courtesy of Warner Brothers
Courtesy of Warner Brothers

With all of the controversy surrounding the Rio Olympics, it seems almost a little too convenient that this weekend saw the release of War Dogs, which in some circles could be named “Ryan Lochte: The Movie.”

What I mean by this is that although the film does not feature any swimmers, War Dogs does feature a bunch of dudes who lie instead of taking responsibility for their actions. I suppose it isn’t exactly that much of a coincidence, considering that every movie with a ‘purpose’ seems to be talking about toxic masculinity (not that I’m complaining; it’s better than a movie without a purpose. It’s just, maybe if a more diverse crowd were given the opportunity to make the films, we might have more diverse themes). But regardless, War Dogs is a movie about male mayhem.

Directed by Todd Phillips, who helmed the Hangover trilogy, this theme is nothing new. What is new is the vaguely political surroundings. Taking place during the war in Iraq, War Dogs features two twenty-somethings who bid on weaponry contracts for the U.S. Military. However, as their company grows, their business practices become more and more ethically dubious. While the movie can still label itself as a dark comedy, its tone is ultimately much more dramatic than Phillips’s previous films. Unfortunately, this dramatic turn isn’t always as hard-hitting as the filmmakers would like it to be, and the movie wavers between being informational, like The Big Short, and explosive, like The Wolf of Wall Street.

However, the mixture of these two films creates a picture that is more uneven than magical. A large reason for this is that the focus doesn’t always seem to be in the right place. The primary engagement of the film involves the relationship between David Packouz (Miles Teller) and Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill). And while this relationship is consistently fascinating, it sometimes feels like it takes away from the grander scale of the film.

War Dogs features narration by Miles Teller, which appears to be entirely redundant. I suppose the reasoning was that this narration would inject some humanity into Packouz, and establish him as the straight man. However, the tone of the narration often doesn’t match the tone of the scene, making it feel disengaged and distracting. Not to mention that the inclusion of a voiceover gives the impression that the character will ultimately grow by the end of the film.

War Dogs is apathetic towards any lesson learned, which is part of what makes it feel so incomplete. The content judgment is ultimately left up to the audience, which seems to incite the same moral misguidance the movie wants to condemn. The film introduces some interesting themes about power dynamics and destruction within the quest for control but doesn’t do anything with them.

Heck, there’s even a Scarface (1983) motif. Diveroli has an obsession with the movie, and it’s obvious that he took all of the wrong lessons from it. That a film would introduce this idea but then not finish its thought is beyond me. It appears that Packouz has learned his lesson – he has a cameo in the film – but the movie’s moment of realization is anything but convincing.

Instead, War Dogs focuses much more on technical ideas. In a lot of ways, it feels like it’s adapted from a book (it’s actually adapted from a Rolling Stone article), because of the intricate details describing how the duo pulled off their criminal behavior. However, while the details are present when examining the intricacies, there is no time to explore Packouz’s emotional state, and his actions after his world starts to crumble around him.

That said, while the relationship between Packouz and Efraim takes precedence over seemingly any other interesting idea, the dynamics between the two of them are spot-on. Jonah Hill is stunning in every single scene and walks away as the real winner of the film. It’s obvious that there was time spent examining the growth of the pair over the course of the movie.

More than this, the heart of War Dogs is in the right place. It is not a bad movie. It’s just uneven. It gives a cause, an effect, but no solution. It’s not that the film shouldn’t exist or that it isn’t particularly relevant. It’s that the movie – much like it’s characters – talk a big game and then don’t deliver.

All of this goes to create a film that is enjoyable, but unfulfilled. The editing seems a bit stilted, and each scene ends with a ‘moment’. The scenes don’t connect because each one ends with a character walking away from the camera dramatically. This idea proves to be emblematic of War Dogs as a whole. Each scene has a nice progression, and it always looks great, but there is no build to make the film truly memorable after it is over.

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