Friday, August 26, 2016

'War Dogs' review

In the last few years, we've seen a lot of comedic and action-oriented directors take a turn towards more dramatic material to mixed results. Adam McKay's stock dramedy The Big Short was a brilliant deconstruction of what made the stock market fall apart, while Michael Bay's Pain & Gain was an ugly, unlikable, and idiotic story of American greed (I guess I get the acclaim, but I really despised it). Now, director Todd Phillips of The Hangover trilogy is trying his hand at more dramatic material with War Dogs, a Scorsese-inspired tale of two young hustlers in the middle of the Iraq war. Phillips is no Martin Scorsese (that almost goes without saying), and War Dogs is no Wolf of Wall Street. But when you're being compared to one of the greatest directors of all time and one of the best films of the 21st Century, that's kind of a high bar to hit, right? Even though it never reaches the heights of its equally morally horrendous predecessors, this energetically-told film is an entertaining portrait of two greedy men (played brilliantly by Miles Teller and Jonah Hill) who would stop at nothing to take over the world of international arms dealing. For fans of the genre, War Dogs is another welcome addition.

It's 2005, and David Packouz (Miles Teller) is going nowhere in life. He's a massage therapist in Miami Beach, smoking heaps of weed in his car, living in a bland apartment with his girlfriend (Ana de Armas). With a baby on the way, David needs a way to make money fast. His plan to sell Egyptian cotton sheets to homes for the elderly fails, which is a plan that costs him thousands of dollars. Enter Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), David's childhood friend. Efraim was a loose cannon in middle school, who later went on to become a major arms dealer. Efraim and David reunite at a friend's funeral, and it's clear that they've ended up in radically different places. Efraim drives a BMW, fends off drug dealers with a powerful automatic weapon, and dresses in nice suits. You can sense his power and swagger.

Efraim feels David's desperation, and because of his devotion to his friend, he invites David to come work with him at AEY, a new weapons start-up. America is stuck in the middle of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and with new policies and a high demand for weapons and ammunition, the US government has allowed for smaller players to join the arms race. That gives AEY the chance to bid on high-level defense contracts. With the help of some crafty (but possibly illegal) solutions, David and Efraim work their way up the American defense ladder, eventually leading the way to one of the biggest contracts in history. But as the stakes grow higher, the endless greed of the pair of young arms dealers will cause things to come crumbling down in sensational, tragic fashion.

In a way, War Dogs feels like the first crime film made by people who grew up watching and loving crime films. Or, I should say, a specific type of crime film- the kind pioneered by the legendary Martin Scorsese, where there's a few too many freeze frames, lots of energetic music, and a bunch of douchebag characters. Todd Phillips imitates Scorsese's style throughout, and it goes so far that I would almost consider this to be an homage to films like Wolf of Wall Street and Goodfellas. But oddly enough, the influence of those classic films extends beyond Phillips' direction and the general craft of the filmmaking. Even the characters in War Dogs are obsessed with classic gangster dramas. Efraim and David talk about Scarface constantly, and they're the kind of people who watch that movie and see Tony Montana as a hero. Jordan Belfort, Henry Hill- those aren't anti-heroes to them, they're representations of the American dream.

I know people like that. I know people who saw The Wolf of Wall Street and found Belfort to be the role model of that story. Forget the fact that he screwed over thousands of hard-working Americans. Don't worry about his degenerative drug use. And don't even mention the part of the movie where he literally punches his wife, snorts a line of coke, and crashes his Ferrari with his daughter in the front seat. Nope. To some people, even with all of that nastiness, Belfort is the unquestioned hero of Wolf. The story in War Dogs is what would happen if one of those people got really ambitious and stumbled upon a $300 million dollar contract to supply the US army. It's what would happen if a couple of morally bankrupt people raised on a steady diet of gangster epics ever got any raw power. And that's why Todd Phillips' film succeeds so well at what it does.

Phillips has often injected crime elements into his stories, and with The Hangover Part III, it became clear to me that he really wanted to make a large-scale epic about criminals. He gets his moment to shine with War Dogs, and although some of his directorial choices veer a little too closely to the work of Scorsese and De Palma, he proves himself to be more than capable of telling this kind of story. Phillips' pacing is excellent, and this story always moves with good energy and flow. He has an eye for glossy style and color (this was always prevalent in the Hangover films), and it's on full display here. There's only one problem- the story in War Dogs just inherently isn't as grand or complex as it wants to be. It wants to be the newest definitive epic about American greed and it's not that. I'm not saying that this movie ever needed to come close to the level of Wolf or Goodfellas, but when your movie is constantly reminding the audience of those classics, it can be a bit of a letdown when the story is significantly simpler.

Efraim Diveroli and David Packouz's story does not span decades or feature immense changes in character. This is a pretty simple tale of two guys who screwed up their chance at success by becoming criminals. And while Phillips seems to struggle to cope with the limited scope of the story to some extent (it's not a flaw that defines the movie), it doesn't prevent Miles Teller and Jonah Hill from turning in some of the best performances of the year. Two years ago, Hill played Donnie Azoff, Jordan Belfort's dopey right-hand man in Wolf of Wall Street. He dominated the screen at every turn and stood toe-to-toe with DiCaprio, and for his performance as Efraim Diveroli, Hill rejuvenates every ounce of that despicable charisma. With a whiny laugh that sounds like Seth Rogen on helium, an obnoxious attitude, and an unrelenting drive for power, Diveroli's character is crystal clear- he's a wannabe crime lord. There's a scene about halfway through this movie where Diveroli is leading a board meeting at AEY, instructing a bunch of money-hungry dimwits on how to find defense contracts. It's a scene that was eerie in a way, as it finds Hill picking up DiCaprio's mantle as the leader of the wolfpack. Efraim is a one-note character in a way, but Hill manages to make him dynamic and fascinating. He's terrific.

While Hill plays off characters that he has done in the past, Teller's turn as Packouz almost feels like an inversion of his screen persona. In almost every role, Teller is the go-getter, the one recklessly running in pursuit of success. Andrew in Whiplash is relentlessly devoted to his drumming, Sutter in The Spectacular Now is the leader of his high school's party scene, and the list goes on from there. And while Packouz is an ambitious, relaxed man, he's never the first to jump on board for anything. Whenever Efraim has a big idea, David is the one who tells him over and over that it's crazy. David has limits, and although his desperate ambition always gets the best of him, he emerges as the only remotely moral character in the movie in a weird sort of way. He's a character that the audience can understand, even if he's making awful choices. Teller is very good in the role, even if he's outshined by hill.

War Dogs isn't a masterpiece like the movies that it takes its inspiration from, nor will it establish the talent of a new dramatic voice like The Big Short did for Adam McKay. But did it ever really need to be that? No, of course not. If The Wolf of Wall Street was a home run, then War Dogs is a solid standup double. It's a highly entertaining journey with one of the funniest performances of the year, some strong directorial pizzazz, and a fascinating whirlwind of a story that is quite a lot of fun to watch. But most importantly, as a cracked mirror look at the lives of two guys who would stop at nothing to live out their crime movie dreams, Todd Phillips' latest film is a provocative, absorbing success.

THE FINAL GRADE:  B+                                            (7.7/10)

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