Minutes before the preview of War Dogs, director Todd Phillips' latest film, I read a review from a fellow film blogger who slated the film for all it was worth; as such, I nearly walked out the free screening and ran as far as I could. That, however, did remind me though of the significance of expectations (something that befell Suicide Squad, for me anyway) and how you should never judge a book by its cover, or let others impact your own judgment. That's not to say I loved War Dogs - not by any stretch of the imagination - but I'm very glad I can make my own judgment now and will always encourage others too.
War Dogs follows two arms dealers, Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) and David Packouz (Miles Teller), who win a government contract to supply weapons for U.S. troops in Afghanistan, turning war into a financial machine to fuel their excessive lifestyles. Based on a true story, although heavily dramatised and fictionalised, their ultimate rise and fall is depicted in this crime-war comedy drama film, that can never quite decide what genre it falls into.
Surprisingly, the film handles its two central protagonists well. Mainly thanks to solid performances from Teller and Hill, the two antiheroes are never lionised or celebrated for their actions, unlike this year's Best Picture nominee The Big Short - a film I truly detested - despite the over the top portrayal from Hill in particular, who occasionally feels like a pantomime villain. The two create a strong chemistry when they are on screen together and it is in these moments that the film is strongest. While these two central characters were performed well and with notable characterisation, I simply didn't care for them, something which prevented my investment in the film a little. The only character I cared for was Iz, Packouz's wife, played by the impressive Ana de Armas, who created a believable supporting performance in a film that often skirted such a notion, becoming more farcical and melodramatic as it went on - an obvious victim to over-dramatisation that it may not have needed it.
Thematically, the film never quite knows where it sits, reflected in its uneasy approach to deciding what genre it fits into. The first few minutes are promising in offering a genuinely satirical analysis of the actual cost of war and how people will exploit the misfortune, but it never quite lives up to that initial promise and falls short of satire on too many occasions to explore deeper themes and impacts. That rules the satire genre out. As a comedy, the film fails to evoke more than a handful of chuckles and even more than that. Comedy? Not really. And as a serious drama, it falls short of the mark. This is no Oscar material, despite Bradley Cooper's brief apperances. It settles for an unnatural and awkward hybrid and combination of a number of genres, which is perhaps also why the film runs on a good 15 to 20 minutes too long, losing pace in the second to third act. It is, however, structured in a way that helps keep it relatively snappy, moving from set piece and location to the next well, even with this extra runtime.
The mixed messages continue with the very basic outline of the plot: we are continually reminded of the notoriety of the operation, though these are uneasily paralleled with shots of money, drugs and guns, attempting to remind us how 'cool' these guys are. If this is an attempt at being ironic, it didn't quite work, as being 'on the nose' sometimes alienates the actual message. It's sort of entertaining, but could be so much more than that, hindered by its predictability; there are a few surprising twists but a story as remarkable as this one should not have viewers knowing exactly what is about to happen.
I don't have much more to say about War Dogs other than it is a very average film - watchable, but not rewatchable. Nothing is terrible, nothing is that good. What worked against War Dogs for me was the echoes back to The Big Short and whilst this is a vast improvement on that absurdity, the similarities remain and it didn't shake them off. I am still a little flummoxed as to what the film is/was trying to say, even upon reflection but perhaps thats just my understanding of it. It's a film that will work for some more than others but when you have free tickets, you wouldn't turn it down.
Summary: War Dogs certainly isn't terrible, but it's not good either, mainly because it lacks its own identity and becomes increasingly confused on what it is, what it is trying to say, and what it is trying to do.
Highlight: Johan Hill's laugh. Or maybe that's the worst part. I just don't know with this film.