War Dogs

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Review: War Dogs
War Dogs’ Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) loves Scarface.  Early in the film, we see a massive poster of Tony Montana hanging in his office.  Efraim absolutely emulates Montana and his crazy over the top riches.  And like many of Scarface’s fans, he conveniently forgets that Montana ended up face down in a fountain.   It’s a bit of a heavy handed metaphor for  Efraim’s character, but this sums up War Dogs perfectly:  Over the top style.
Yet War Dogs is still a great film.  While it’s overly long, the over the top style and great characters drenched in shades of grey make the film worth checking out.
War Dogs is the true story of two twenty-somethings who ran guns from 2005 to 2008.  Efraim and his best friend David Packouz (Miles Teller) rise in the illegal/legal military weapons “procurement” trade.  Their adventures eventually lead to a huge contract with the U.S. Government and they stoop to more illegal (And dangerous) methods to get the job done.
Todd Phillips is mostly known for his over the top comedies like Old School and The Hangover.  Anyone looking for that type of comedy will be disappointed.  There is humor, but it’s used sparingly and is surprisingly restrained.  Mike Tyson doesn’t suddenly show up and punch Jonah Hill while singing a Phil Collins, for example.
However, Phillips’ style is perfect for War Dogs.  Though based on a true story, the events are so crazy it’s hard to believe them.  Phillips’ saturated colors, seemingly manic choice of contemporary music and slow motion…they are everywhere in the film.  And it mostly works.
But only mostly.  Some of the popular music works, but the time jumps between music from the early 2000’s to classic rock are jarring.  Miles Teller’s narration, while generally solid, gets in the way sometimes.  And like some of Phillips’ other films, it feels a little too long.  It feels like the film gets stretched unnecessarily, especially in the third act.  But the long run time also means spending more time with the great characters.
Jonah Hill’s Efraim is the heart beat of the film.  Notice, I did not say the heart.  Efraim is a sleazy guy and the film’s narrative is propelled by his greed.  That said, you cannot take your eyes off him whenever he is onscreen.  There is a strange charisma to his character…he can literally talk anyone into anything.  Hill is great in the role, keeping a conniving sleazeball simmering under a charismatic surface.
Miles Teller is great as David, the struggling masseuse tempted by the piles of money Efraim’s business offers.  He is the heart of the movie…but its a corrupted heart.  We see the events of the film through his eyes and Teller wisely doesn’t play David as an overly naive kid.  You root for him, but he cheats, steals and knows everything he does is illegal.
The friendship between Efraim and David is what ultimately makes War Dogs work.  The two have great chemistry with each other and play off each other like real friends.  Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about the relationship between David and his girlfriend Iz (Ana de Armas).  She is simply a plot device, the motivation for David to go for the big pay day.  And it doesn’t help that the film makes it a little unclear as to how much Iz knows about David’s business.  Her anger over the seedier details seems odd to say the least.
Though he is featured heavily in the marketing campaign, Bradley Cooper’s role as mysterious gun runner Henry Girard is actually pretty small.  This is too bad as Cooper is pretty solid as the strangely intimidating Girard.  Maybe it works out for the best.  Efraim and David are both somewhat new to the international gun running business, so the mystery surrounding Girard is fitting.
At one point, David says that the real reason wars are fought is money.  And if anyone tells you different, they’re either in on the racket or they’re lying.  After watching War Dogs it’s hard to argue with him.  Money corrupts everyone in the film, even the supposedly sympathetic leading man.  It’s a pretty cynical film and the ending is pitch perfect.
If you love true crime stories in the vein of Goodfellas then you will likely enjoy War Dogs.  It’s not nearly as good,  its unique style makes it standout.  Think of it as a summer blockbuster version of that legendary film.
Score: 8 out of 10