War Dogs  is the latest offering from the director of The Hangover film series, Todd Phillips, and is partially based on the true story of two young arms dealers seeking to make a fortune by selling weapons to the United States military. It stars Jonah Hill and Miles Teller in the two lead roles.
Where’d the laughs go? Whilst Todd Phillips’ style of comedy is far from universally admired, the commercial success he has enjoyed with the likes of Old School, Due Date and all three of The Hangover films proves that it’s clearly his strong point, so it is surprising to report that War Dogs isn’t a funny film at all, although nor is it really trying to be. The trailer for the film made it out to be a raucous and anarchic romp that went all-in on its characters revelling in a morally debauched lifestyle – much like another film starring Hill, 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street – but the film instead keeps the light-hearted moments to a minimum in favour of playing up the more dramatic aspects of the story. This ends up leaving both stars feeling rather underused, and in the end, the distinct lack of laughs just exposes the rather predictable and uninspired plot even more. A story of the little man cheating the system to earn his fortune against the odds is one that has been done a million times before – with a film War Dogs constantly references, Scarface, being a prime example – and there is nothing on show here that has not been done before to a higher standard.
Morally confused rather than morally bankrupt. Another issue the film struggles with throughout is how it should be handling the morally questionable actions of its protagonists, and by not making that clear with any sort of conviction the end result is a muddled one. Hill’s character is undeniably loathsome but the motivations of Teller’s character for getting involved in such a shady business is more understandable, with his venture into selling bedsheets to old folks’ homes failing miserably and his girlfriend pregnant with their first child, but the highly questionable choices he makes are never met with any real consequences. Whilst the characters in The Wolf of Wall Street were even more detestable, the film wasn’t afraid to double-down on the depraved actions of its protagonists before it all came crumbling down around them, but in War Dogs this is never really the case. The clearest example of this comes from how Teller’s character repeatedly lies to his girlfriend about the business he is involved in, and whilst she is angry at him for half a scene at least, every time she seems to cede on her morals and forgive him for all of the lies he has made. One of the fascinating aspects of seeing an otherwise ordinary person become involved in highly criminal activities is how they justify their actions to both themselves and their loved ones (see: Breaking Bad) but here it feels like that entire dilemma is totally ignored, blunting the potential for any emotional impact this film might otherwise have had.
Extraordinarily ordinary. It’s difficult to escape the feeling that everything about War Dogs is little more than average at best. The lack of comedy is one thing, but it doesn’t make up for that with nearly enough interesting character or narrative developments to really captivate an audience for its near-two-hour runtime. The voiceover from Teller feels needless, the actions scenes wash over you without really making any sort of impact and Jonah Hill, despite gaining a ton of weight for the role and putting on a ridiculous laugh, feels weirdly subdued for a character that is supposed to be purposefully channeling Tony Montana. The film’s attempts to offer some sort of political commentary on the spending habits of the United States military falls rather flat, never extending to anything more meaningful than our protagonists saying “fuck Bush” and “fuck Cheney”. Stating that war is bad and money is evil is hardly revolutionary so if you’re going to adopt that stance in your movie it has to be done in a way that doesn’t feel lazy and contrived, something that War Dogs is certainly guilty of. Unfortunately, this ties into the fact that the film is seemingly unable to either glorify or condemn its characters and their actions and ultimately that leads for it to feel like a rather confused affair lacking in any real impact.I’d be lying if I said I hated War Dogs or even really disliked it, but my indifference towards it was particularly disappointing given the expectations the trailer had set up for me. It was watchable enough but too often did it feel like I was experiencing a film unsure of what it was really supposed to be.
I could do without having to see another film the quality of The Hangover Part. III again, but I’m very much of the opinion that Todd Phillips should go back to making an outright comedy for his next film.