War Dogs

As a film about illegal arms dealers, War Dogs attempts, in a Wolf on Wall Street-esque fashion, to introduce us to the alluring appeal of humanity's rebels. However, despite some strong acting performances, including Jonah Hill, the director's reluctance to truly depict the despicable reality of the story in a bid for comedy, leaves a rather sour taste in the mouth - 5 out of 10 stars.

Why is mischief so appealing in the movies? Why is the bad nefarious villain so much more hip than the goody two-shoes hero? In real life, all of us, or at least most of us, will spit in the faces of Tony Montana and Michael Corleone, but in the awesome fantasy world of movies, we adore and idolise them. What did the Godfather mean when he said he was going to make a fellow business man “an offer he can’t refuse”? He meant he was going to stick a gun in his face and hold him against his will. But we throw this famous quote around, ubiquitously, as if it was the mark of every great negotiator.

But it is fairly obvious why audiences would find such behaviour so alluring. We live our entire lives in fear – fear of losing our jobs, social statuses, spouses, life savings, children and so on. And when we see this guy on the silver screen, living on the edge, putting it all on the table, living life to the fullest, doing all the things we wouldn’t dare contemplate, not afraid of government or society, we almost fill liberated. The Montanas and the Corleones of the movies are living our dreams and, thanks to them, we vicariously are too.

Todd Philips’s War Dogs tells the true story of two adolescents who become notorious gun dealers. David Packouz is a recently married, 20-something, male masseur, with financial problems. He sinks his entire life’s savings into an unadvisable investment that leaves him struggling to make a living. One day, at a high school mate’s funeral, he comes across an old friend he grew up with – Efraim Diveroli. Where Packouz has been struggling, Diveroli has been successful. He works as an arms dealer, selling heavy artillery to the US government. Diveroli, too, is in his early 20’s.

Seeing that Packouz’s wife is pregnant, and that Packouz has money problems enough without a third person to support, Diveroli cuts him into a 30 percent business partnership of his company, AEY (“it doesn’t mean anything”). The company’s first huge break comes as a result of the US-Iraq War. Even though arms’ dealing is not illegal by itself, Diveroli and Packouz repeatedly break the law by selling guns and bullets to the US army they get from embargoed countries like China.

For Phillips, the director, War Dogs is a slightly different animal than his blockbuster comedies, The Hangover and Old School. With most of his other films, the point is humour, whereas in War Dogs, he is asking the audience to take away a lesson. The fact that this film has funny scenes is a consequence of Philips’s personal touch. As a filmmaker, I admire that he has style, but what this style signifies is reservation. Philips is for the most part unable to concentrate on the themes of War Dogs, and instead sets out to turn the protagonist’s transgressions into a Hangover-like scenario where the act itself is merely naughty and not appalling. Nevertheless, regardless of the amount of jokes Philip unloads on his unsuspecting and (fairly) ignorant audience, it still doesn’t excuse the fact that it is people like Diveroli and Packouz that make war so much uglier than it is.

Philips obviously used 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street for inspiration. This film has a lengthy narration, like the aforementioned Martin Scorsese’s movie, and is also about bad people who have no regard for law or society. But where Wolf had a fantastic score, brilliant dialogue and a succulent cinematography, War Dogs falls far short, and not just because the narration sounded too much like a commentary, but because Philips tries to downplay his protagonists’ debauchery. At no time in its 3-hour length does Wolf try to pretend it is about anything other than greed and misogyny. War Dogs, on the contrary, is an impertinent film that tries to tell us that, although illegal arms dealing is bad, it is a relatively harmless mistake anyone can make.

As with most movies based on real life events, the acting in War Dogs is impressive. The reason why is obvious – when a film is non-fiction, actors study how the real people (their characters are based upon) act and speak. But when a work of fiction, an actor simply looks to other performances of fictional characters for inspiration; think of it as a copy of a copy. Packouz is played adequately by rising star Miles Teller, whose best performance was in 2014’s, astonishingly original, sleeper hit Whiplash. Another very good actor, Bradley Cooper, plays a relatively minor role – which shouldn’t be surprising since he also produced the film – with unexpected enthusiasm.

Diveroli, the other protagonist, is played by Jonah Hill. If, in 2008, someone told me the carefree, overweight kid from Superbad (a very funny movie by the way) would go on to become as good an actor as he did in Moneyball and The Wolf Wall Street, I would have returned an unbelieving stare. War Dogs marks his most mature performance though. It is not important to look at what the real Diveroli was like to know that Hill’s performance was spot-on. We have all, at one point or another, met vile individuals who don’t care what happens to other people, and Hill in War Dogs is that. Unfortunately, all of Hill’s hard work – all the discipline and deliberation that went into portraying Diveroli – is for nothing because War Dogs is a very forgettable movie.

To an audience looking for a great movie about real life malefactors, I say look no further than Scorsese’s masterful Goodfellas. The film isn’t a comedy, but a faithful portrayal of the mafia culture that has pervaded the heads of youngsters in Italian- American neighbourhoods. And those looking for a good, but tastefully light, film about the nature of war in the Middle East, David O. Russel’s Three Kings should satisfy. It’s a true story about four American soldiers who carry out a gold heist in an Iraqi desert. The film makes all the seemingly unbelievable real life events that take place in War Dogs look pedestrian.


Published on Aug 30,2016 [ Vol 17 ,No 852]



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