From the director of The Hangover, Todd Phillips, comes the true story of how two twentysomething chancers became multi-millionaires selling weapons.
Jonah Hill has grown into a versatile actor over the past 5 years. His serious roles in Moneyball, The Wolf Of Wall Street, and True Story have shown some serious acting chops, and his comedic roles in 21 Jump Street, This Is The End, and Hail, Cesaer! are those of a man at the top of his game. It’s a long way from being the fat kid in Superbad. Miles Teller also made a huge critical breakthrough with his role in Whiplash, but the mess that was Fantastic Four and the under performing Divergent series have somewhat slowed his upward momentum. So how do these two fare when taking on the true story of two stoner entrepreneurs who made millions selling weapons to the US military?
Miles Teller plays David Packouz, a 22 year old with no direction in life, who has lost various jobs and is working as a masseur for rich Florida business men. At a funeral for a family member, he meets up with a childhood friend Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) who has just moved back home. Efraim has earned a load of money while he is away, working with his uncle, apparently selling weapons. David and Efraim meet up a few more times, and when David’s wife Iz (Ana de Armas) tells him she is pregnant, he agrees to start working in Efraim’s business AEY Inc.
AEY’s business is to find government weapons contracts and fill them. It has made Efraim incredibly rich at a young age, and David sees it as a way to provide for his new family. They are very successful (with just one hitch that requires them to go to Iraq) by filling small contracts, but when a life changing opportunity comes up they take on a huge contract, they take the plunge. They need to get their hands on 100,000,000 AK47 bullets, and this brings them into contact with shady arms dealer Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper). Can these two find a way to make the deal and change their lives forever?
I had a series of problems with this film, most coming from the fact that this is based on a true story. Had War Dogs been an original story, it would have been very enjoyable. However, the mixing of fact and fiction causes a lot of issues, and after The Big Short, this feels like a comedic director taking on a piece of recent history and just not quite getting it right. Even the briefest look shows the liberties the film takes with the true story – for example, in the film AEY fulfill a series of contracts quickly and honestly, when in fact multiple times they bought different weapons and managed to talk their way out of their obligations to increase their profit margins.
Jonah Hill’s presence in both films also brings comparisons with The Wolf Of Wall Street, especially when we are asked to spend time with characters that are essential bad people doing bad things. David has no issues with continually lying to his wife and friends, selling out his anti-war principles IMMEDIATELY, and eventually cheating most of the business partners he deals with – and yet the way the film is set up, he is the character we are expected to empathise with. Efraim is painted as the bad guy, but really David is just as bad, and his actions aren’t just the result off Efraim’s corrupting influence. And at least Jonah Hill gives a brilliantly horrible performance (definitely channeling DiCaprio’s performance as Jordan Belfort) and we are never asked to sympathise with him.
It was also surprisingly that there is almost no effort to highlight the time period. Apart from one reference to “Chaney’s America”, it could take place in a fictional universe. It wouldn’t take much for a few news reports to set the events of the film in context. In fact, the music is some of the most generic rock film music you will ever hear. It smacks of laziness. There are cliche songs aplenty – I was literally counting down until Creedance Clearwater Revial came on… and it did. David and Efraim’s story ends with Behind Blue Eyes by The Who playing over the conclusion. In fact, the lack of anything to date the film (even the big contract is not given any real context) is so glaring that it could be a deliberate attempt to avoid comparisons to The Big Short. If not, it’s like a first year film student put together a wishlist of music they want to use in a film, and then actually got to use it.
There are still problems with the actual film beyond the issues with its setting. Freeze frames and narration are a dangerous combination. The decision to put title cards between scenes (but not sticking with the idea) really grates, especially when the quotes on the cards are used in the following scene. David’s wife Iz is one of the most hopelessly passive characters you will see, and although not given much to work with, Ana de Armas is rubbish. Most of her conversations with David have her talking at a totally different pace and in a totally different tone.
Speaking of unconvincing relationships, David and Efraim (or more accurately, Miles Teller and Jonah Hill) don’t look even close to being the same age. They barely look like they belong in the same generation. Also AEY goes from picking up the crumbs to all of a sudden being able to put together a $300 million deal in a shift that doesn’t really make sense outside of “we need to start building a finale now”. And speaking of the finale, there is an absolutely ridiculous, laughably stupid scene involving a contract. It is an almost insulting moment.
I took against the film early on and maybe never gave it a fair chance, but when a TWENTY TWO year old guy is presented as someone with no future and nothing good going on in his life, I think I’m allowed to get annoyed when he has a wife, is earning $75 an hour giving massages, and has a group of well educated and supportive friends. Like I said, the presentation of David as the sympathetic character is totally at odds with what is actually happening on screen. The music choice is uninspired. The most interesting character is Girard, and Bradley Cooper (taking on the Robert DeNiro role that is normally in a Bradley Cooper movie) just isn’t in the film enough. Jonah Hill is very good though, and it almost earns the film a recommendation on his own. Almost, but not quite. Don’t bother, instead watch any of Wolf Of Wall Street, American Hustle, The Big Short, Scarface (a film that is constantly referenced), Lord Of War (it’s got Cage!) … the list goes on.
Until next time, stay gold, Ponyboy, stay gold. See you soonish.
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