It’s known that when it comes to adapting a true story for the big screen certain liberties are taken in the transition. There are embellishments to make things bigger than life, romantic subplots added to fit the mold of usual narrative films and the matching of an actor or actress to the real life person is sometimes a bit off, especially if the main character isn’t well known at all or is a pretty much completely unknown other than the story being told. This is definitely true when it comes to Todd Phillips’ new film War Dogs, a film that depicts two young Florida-born boys in their early twenties who get into a business that is way over their heads. Played by Jonah Hill and Miles Teller, two guys that are obviously older than that and look absolutely nothing like them. The saving grace for this little fact is that these two work so well together and the story is so crazy that you can make these kinds of allowances and not let it ruin your entire viewing.
Todd Phillips is a director who is usually known for making outrageous comedies and War Dogs, although dealing with a pretty serious overlying topic, is no different. Starting his career with Road Trip, a little movie that did some big business, the film put him on the map and led to his next film Old School, a movie that developed a massive following. His next two films wouldn’t be received as kindly as both Starsky & Hutch, although receiving better reviews than any of his other films, and School For Scoundrels, his worst review film at that point, both failed miserably, even though I kind of have a soft spot for them myself. It was after this that Phillips would make The Hangover, his biggest success to date. It became a huge phenomenon that everyone was talking about which soon lost its luster with two really bad sequels. Including Due Date, another Zach Galifianakis and Todd Phillips movie, that I also liked and no one else did, the comedy director was seriously needing another win. Would War Dogs be that resurgence for him?
Miles Teller plays David Packouz, a kid without a career direction, working as a professional masseuse, but a yearning to do something that could provide for him and his girlfriend Iz, played by the beautiful Ana de Armas of Eli Roth’s Knock Knock. While at a funeral for a high school friend, David reconnects with his former best friend Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), someone that was a sort of bad influence on him in school, responsible for getting him arrested at one point. Efraim has the same cocky and brash attitude that David remembers but there something different about the way he carries himself and, while hanging out with him after the service, he shows his cards. Efraim confides in David that he now sells weapons to the United States military and has actually found some success, even if the name of his company, AEY, is just written on a piece of masking tape slapped on the door of his office. David manages to turn down the allure of working with Efraim at first but when Iz reveals she is pregnant he quickly says yes to the offer.
David begins the crash course of the memorization of weapons logistics and the whole way that everything works in gun running from his teacher Efraim. The reality of the situation is so crazy that you can’t believe it’s true. The weapons contract that supplies the operations in Afghanistan and Iraq are all put onto an eBay or Craigslist-like website where open contractors can bid on the contracts to supply these orders. The rules put in place are only to protect the United States from breaching embargos with other companies but it seems that beyond that David and Efraim are able to work in many different gray areas to make things work and that they do. Quickly, David finds himself making crazy amounts of money, nothing like he’s ever seen before. He starts to upgrade his life and show off the money he’s been making to Iz, buying a new car and a spacious high rise apartment. Things are looking incredibly lucrative for everyone involved until a contract comes along with a price tag that would put all of that to shame. Unfortunately, Efraim’s increasing greed and lust for power may put everything in jeopardy.
One thing is very obvious about War Dogs from the get go and you can see that this script, character progression and the overall movie itself is very much retooled to accommodate both Miles Teller and Jonah Hill’s acting styles. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing but it’s pretty noticeable and may be aggravating for any real story buff when they delve into the real back story of Efraim Diveroli and David Packouz. It’s an opportunity for Jonah to be obnoxious and spit heinous one-liners while Miles plays the audience conduit and “straight man” of the feature. This pays off for the people looking for funny dialogue, as there is much to be found in this film, especially when the two start to get over their head. The only issue I had when getting further into the film is that Hill’s character becomes the biggest of sociopathic villains and that is very much telegraphed in his and David’s reconnection at the beginning, but I chalk this up to that cookie cutter Hollywood storytelling I alluded to at the start of my review.
I feel like Todd Phillips really took the city of Miami to heart in this film as he seemed to pull from what I’m calling the school of Michael Bay filmmaking. This isn’t meant to be a derogatory term as I mean it in the best possible sense when it comes to the explosion-heavy exposition light director. Instead of films like Armageddon and the Transformers franchise, I’m more talking about some of Bay’s more grounded (pun not intended) movies like Pain & Gain, a hyperactive but completely true story, also set in the Florida city. Phillips has some of those sepia-toned shots here and there, his filters changing drastically between stateside and shots in Albania or Jordan. Phillips and his cinematographer since The Hangover, Lawrence Sher, have a fast-paced approach to the look of the film that gives that unshakeable comparison. My only issue with the execution of that element was the style they used to break up the scenes, which is a blank title card that simply showed a line that would be used in the upcoming scene. I felt it was a little too much of a pre-tipping of the hat and I feel it pulls you out of the film a bit.
Is War Dogs the film to put Todd Phillips in the big seat again as I asked earlier? No, unfortunately not. The film isn’t up to the original and darkly fun caliber of the first Hangover film and really is just above a middling film entertainment wise. Teller and Hill are both great but it really isn’t anything we haven’t seen before from either of them. Warner Brothers also gives a half-assed ad campaign behind it and may turn off a lot of the audience with the very Scarface-like poster, a film that is actually a huge part of this movie. Audiences don’t want to feel like they’re being pandered to and the approach to this movie screams that sleazy approach right away, much like their depiction of Efraim Diveroli himself. It’ll be your best friend just to get you in the door. Once you’re there, you will find a movie that is only just beyond good. I give War Dogs a three and a half out of five.