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Friday, August 19, 2016

Movie Review: #WarDogs

The sobering comedy War Dogs encourages extreme both laughter and forces scorn at a corrupt system.

Review by Matt Cummings

August is typically a pretty bleak month for film, sporting incredible losers from the second week on, as studios keep their more high-profile films for the Labor Day weekend crowds. But with so many high-profile failures this summer, it's quite unclear just what audiences want these days. Luckily, War Dogs proudly stands up to declare its awesomeness, even if its box office chances feel like a slaughter is imminent.

For loser David Packouz (Miles Teller), poor life choices have forced the Miami native into all kinds of dead-end jobs including male massage therapist and selling bed sheets to financially-strapped rest homes. At the same time, his middle-school buddy Efraim (Jonah Hill) is raking in the dough by fulfilling government weapons contracts during the Iraq War. And he's doing it in small batches, thanks to a recent policy of opening up contracts to small-time suppliers. After attending a funeral for a friend, the two reunite and realize that David needs a career reset. The two join forces and almost immediately begin making money. I mean lots of it, most of which is accrued in thoroughly illegal ways, whether it's driving Barettas across the Triangle of Death in Iraq or disguising illegal Chinese AK-47 rounds to score a huge contract. David's expecting girlfriend Iz (Ana de Armas) begins to realize that David's 'career' isn't exactly limited to sipping tea in fashionable foreign hotels, leading her to question whether David can be trusted. But soon, other forces collide as Efraim's wild life and questionable business tactics begin to tear down his company, inviting the wrath of fellow arms dealer Girard (Brdley Cooper) and sending the duo into a criminal freefall. As the FBI closes in on their illegal operation, David must confront Efraim about their company's malfeasance before both are arrested.

War Dogs is the classic example of a movie you first can't help but laugh at, but also find scorning for its deep social message about government corruption. Director/Co-Writer Todd Phillips finally turns in a film that doesn't rely on dick & fart jokes to propel it, gifting his characters with plenty of ulterior motives and pitting them against the evil vices of want and greed. Along with Writers Stephen Chin and Jason Smilovic, Phillips makes a strong argument that these vices are in direct conflict with our better ones by dangling money out there like a carrot. The idea of screwing the government - and thus our soldiers serving abroad - shouldn't appeal to many, but watching these two carry on is so rewarding, because they're really not very good at this whole arms thing. Unlike 2014's Pain and Gain which saw unpleasant people doing unpleasant things to each other, War Dogs adds a scruffier, sophomoric tone than that of a dangerous gun runner. But we also get that here, with the appearance of an acerbic Cooper; it's almost a glorified cameo, but his chemistry with Teller is undeniable and thoroughly enjoyable.

But it's Hill and Teller together that makes for one of the best onscreen duos of 2016. Hill came into his own with 2014's The Wolf of Wall Street, giving DiCaprio a suitable druggie buddy to hang with; here, Teller takes on Hill's former role, and the results couldn't be more hilarious and (much later) poignant. Teller seems long past his Fantastic Four and Divergent miscastings, instead leafrogging over what could have been a series of 21 & Over letdowns by keeping the slimy out and injecting something Phillips brings as well: maturity. Here, Packouz is reaping the bitter fruits of years as a rudderless teen, sucked into Efraim's life because of circumstance and poor choices; Packouz needs a break, and although Efraim can give it to him, Packouz will pay a high price for aligning himself with his buddy.

Phillips also benefits from turning in a more mature work, successfully adding tension to the fun, then upping things with a white-knuckle attitude that makes for a great ending. He also adds a new emotion absent from his Hangover days: fear. Once the machine begins turning, our characters enter a dark world they cannot control. This isn't the local bar brawl or a wild night in Vegas, but a real test to ensure his characters' very survival. With War Dogs, Phillips is almost admitting that his belligerent Hangover days do come with a price. Phillips' long time DP Lawrence Sher also seems to mark significant professional growth, turning in a great-looking film with varied climes and moods. The high-rolling of Vegas (an obvious Phillips choice) is contrasted with the stark landscapes of third world countries including Morocco, Bucharest, and Romania. In many ways, War Dogs feels like a resume to studios like Marvel and DC who might be looking for the next bigshot director. Considering the final product, I'd say Phillips and Sher could be fielding more phonecalls for potentially better projects.

If there was one issue I had with War Dogs is its rather on-the-nose choices of classic rock which also seems way overdone. But that's a minor complaint, because the script and performances are so gripping. Even the underused Armas brings a strong sense of humanity to Iz, creating a moral anchor for Packouz that Efraim doesn't have. She's not the bimbo comedic element of Phillips' past, and that's certainly refreshing. Audiences are sure to wonder if the Bush administration's efforts to privatize war has created a more dangerous monster, a move that not only seems purposeful but an important element to consider if you decide to take a chance here. I hope you do.

Filled with great performances, sharp commentary, and a comedic tone you'll feel slightly guilty at chuckling over, War Dogs provides us with a much-needed respite from the August bx office doldrums. It's a great coming-of-age moment for Phillips, who seems ready to up his game in a way that Ghostbusters helmer Paul Feig doesn't seem quite ready (or able) to do. And yet, I'd be shocked to see War Dogs fare better than the superior The Nice Guys. It's now unclear what audiences want from their movies, but at least I can't argue that efforts like these offer a much better alternative to the loud and obnoxious slew of recent high-failure blockbusters.

War Dogs is rated R for language throughout, drug use and some sexual references and has a runtime of 114 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.


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