Written by Kristen Lopez
War Dogs ads have glommed on to the recent trend of lampooning Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan as a means of illustrating American deceitfulness. But War Dogs dips a toe into the water, excoriating the “dude-bro” mentality inherent in Trump’s acolytes while simultaneously condemning his, and America’s, actions. Hangover director Todd Phillips’ desperation to follow in fellow comedic director Adam McKay’s footsteps clings to this film like Jonah Hill’s flop sweat as he liberally borrows from every Wall Street movie, from The Big Short to Boiler Room. Aided by two of Hollywood’s most divisive actors with regards to disingenuousness, War Dogs is what it seeks to be: a garish, smarmy tale of deception in love with its own voice.
David Packouz (Miles Teller) is a shiftless massage therapist going nowhere with a child on the way. When he reunites with his best friend from junior high, Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), David finds himself enmeshed in Efraim’s business of selling arms to various foreign governments. But as Efraim and David dive deeper into the international arms dealing world, it threatens their relationships and their lives.
War Dogs fancies itself as many things with homages – more like downright copies – of elements drawn from the aforementioned Big Short, The Wolf of Wall Street and Scarface. Our titular hero David even introduces himself Henry Hill-style with “my name is David Packouz and I’m an international arms dealer.” The general tone of these references is altering us to the fact that we’re watching despicable people doing despicable things, but those previous movies had stronger directors, more complex subject matter, and/or better actors to pull it off.
Teller and Hill give off the appropriate air that sticks to War Dogs like fleas on a dog. They’re rude, crude, and love saying the word “dude” (or “bro”). The real Packouz cooperated with the production because he’s presented as the saner, kinder soul we’re meant to root for. Reminding us constantly of his horrid past as a massage therapist for wealthy men – a litany of gay panic jokes succeeding every mention – David needs some quick cash because his girlfriend Iz (Ana de Armas) gets pregnant. Phillips enjoys the horrors that comes from impending fatherhood because like the equally grim Due Date all it takes is for the stick to turn pink to compel David to enter into life as an arms dealer.
Questions linger as to how much of War Dogs is intentional. Moments of pointed criticism to “Dick Cheney’s America” are spoken aloud, while David and Efraim travel to various international locales and act like ugly Americans in a way I can only assume comments on our own ignorance of foreign nations. But it’s often hard to wonder if Phillips thinks audiences will interpret his film one way, when it’s the shown as the opposite. Case in point, David and Efraim enter into a situation while Creedance Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” plays. The Vietnam implications are evident regarding the long-standing Iraq war, but it’s hard not noticing David and Efraim are the sons CCR condemn.
Gleeful exuberance blossoms in every scene, from slow-motion shots of Efraim shooting machine guns, to David and Efraim dancing after making millions of dollars. Phillips’ desire to say something satirical ends up being the story of two douchebags who lucked into making millions unrepentantly. Is this Dick Cheney’s America or the current one? Sure, David thinks to pay the workers and feels bad when a taxi driver who helped them ends up dead, but the character is either naive to assume bad things don’t happen when you’re dealing guns (that’s like being surprised when a gun actually kills someone) or feigning sorrow when presented with horrific consequences. Hill’s Efraim, the one whose counterpart must have been uncooperative, is drawn as a manipulative sociopath. Every line or character gesture is a character assassination laid on as thick as molasse, all of which are used as “justifications” for David’s actions.
There is a narrative worth telling regarding America’s overinflated defense budget – demonstrated through handy Big Short-esque clips and images, although lacking the previous film’s glitz – but it never goes anywhere. The expansive 114-minute runtime – with chapter headings that turn this into the longest chapter book ever – is filled with repetitious moments of David and Efraim making deals, reveling in their love of Scarface (like any dorm-room bro), and David’s dealings with his girlfriend. When the actual plot takes hold, introducing Bradley Cooper’s monotone war lord Henry Girard, we’ve watched the same scenes play out for this new thread to feel significant.
War Dogs is an insufferably smug tale of two white boys and their wacky hijinks. Phillips borrows so heavily, but never learns from the masters he’s ripping off, leaving the audience with nothing. You’ll need to shower to wash the stink of these two dude-bros off you.