Todd Phillips wanted to make a true crime movie, but all he could manage was Hangover 4

God bless Dick Cheney’s America. Photos courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures.

Steven James
@StevenLeeJames

War Dogs, the latest from writer/director Todd Phillips, tries to be a black comedy that makes the audience emotional, a crime movie, an entertaining comedy that puts exaggerated characters into grounded situations, a political satire and an odd-couple film, but fails at all of those.

During the Iraq War, 22-year-old college dropout David Packouz (Miles Teller) is a massage therapist working in Miami Beach. Desperate to support himself and his now-pregnant girlfriend, Iz (Ana de Armas), he agrees to work at AEY Inc., an international arms dealing company run by childhood friend, Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill). At first, the two bid on smaller U.S. military contracts, but later get a $300 million Pentagon deal to provide the Afghan military with ammunition, putting them in danger with suspicious and underhanded people.

War Dogs contains a lot of elements that don’t mix, which leads to most of its problems. It tries too hard to be sexy, features a great classic rock soundtrack that pops up every five minutes and does not fit into the scenes in which the songs are being played, has an inconsistent tone and lacks a cohesive story. Phillips tries something a little different by trying his hand at a crime film, but his attempt falls flat with all of the problems that are in most of his movies.

The movie goes back and forth from being a raunchy comedy to a serious drama. While this approach gets a little interesting when most of the drama revolves around crime and the lavish lifestyles of Diveroli and Packouz it takes away from the focus of the more interesting war, arms dealing, corrupt government and shady military aspects of the film.

What Phillips tried to do with cowriters Stephen Chin and Jason Smilovic is apparent. They attempted to make a crime movie that takes place across borders. Interesting. This crime movie that takes place across borders stars two arms dealers who are too young and immature to know what they want out of life, especially with money and relationships. Also interesting. But these aspects of the movie are not the focus. The focus is the lame comedy with the unlikable characters. Imagine The Hangover Part II mixed with Due Date, Goodfellas, The Wolf of Wall Street and Zero Dark Thirty. And, when War Dogs does decide to focus more on the political corruption and the questionable military tactics, the movie does so in a very tame way. Why would the filmmakers put these things into the movie if they are just going to gloss over them to glamorize more of the Scarface and The Sopranos style of these idiotic characters? This movie covers a lot of things people around the world need to talk about, but does not take these ideas seriously. Our soldiers did get screwed over. Millions of people did get killed. Terrorist tactics did get more extreme. People like Diveroli and Packouz did get rich off of “the breadcrumbs” of military contracts. But no, the movie wants to focus more on “Hey, isn’t being rich awesome? Hey, look at me fire this AK-47! Hey, don’t people from other countries talk funny, and speak funny languages?”

This movie shamelessly rips off The Wolf of Wall Street. The dialogue is a little different, but stylistically and tonally, the scene in which Diveroli talks to new AEY employees about how to locate the military contracts is a carbon copy of the scene in which Jordan Belfort trains his new employees about stock broking. The film contains several other scenes in which you can tell Phillips very much wanted this to be like Goodfellas or The Wolf of Wall Street, but he lacks Martin Scorsese’s talent. This is also a little baffling, because Hill plays a main character in both War Dogs and The Wolf of Wall Street, he just begins each on opposite sides of the desk.

Another problem with this movie is the jokes themselves. I chuckled quite a few times throughout the movie, but did not sum up any genuine laughs, and almost fell asleep. The movie has title cards with quotes on them before certain scenes to give the audience an idea of what is about to happen. These are all quotes from the characters. Some are not meant to be funny, but most are. However, the ones meant to be funny aren’t and add to the movie’s corny nature.

Phillips’ strength as a director is using exaggerated characters to entertain the audience. This is a hit-and-miss technique, and it misses here.

Also, a decent portion of the humor relies on racism. Not racist jokes, racism. Not long after he and Packouz arrive in Jordan to deliver weapons to a U.S. army unit in Iraq, Diveroli is talking to two Jordanian businessmen and a child interpreter. When Diveroli and the two businessmen come to an agreement, Diveroli asks the interpreter to tell one of the men what he said and to translate that into “gibberish,” as opposed to Arabic. A few scenes later, when the businessmen and the interpreter go to Diveroli and Packouz’s hotel to finalize the deal, Diveroli says he and Packouz need to go downstairs to go “talk to Aladdin.” Movies based on true events should not be faulted for sticking to real life, but these lines are not just something that resembles what the real life Diveroli would say, these are also supposed to be jokes to make the audience laugh, and they are painfully unfunny.

Then there are the performances. Hill and Teller are barely believable as friends. Diveroli is definitely a more serious role than what Hill typically does, but he still diverts back into the hardcore partier character he almost always plays. Teller is hardly ever good. In this movie, he is supposed to play the straight man to Hill’s Diveroli, and is terrible. Most of his lines are delivered with a monotone. He tries to act surprised in ways the real life Packouz probably would have reacted, but all he does is widen his eyes a little, curl his lip, pout and turn his head. Sometimes, all he does is turn his head. Apparently, this is the 2016 version of acting.

Why the heck is Bradley Cooper still in Todd Phillips movies? At least with Clint Eastwood and David O. Russell he got nominated for several prestigious acting and producing awards. He even starred in one of the greatest comic book movies of all time, which is currently getting a sequel treatment for a 2017 release. He should have moved on by this point. He is too good of an actor and too smart of a businessman to stay with Phillips.

Instead of watching War Dogs, go read a book about the conflicts in the Middle East. If you are in high school or college, take classes that could make you more educated about the types of issues this movie introduces, but then pushes to the side. This movie exists for nobody’s benefit, other than Phillips’, who this time tried too hard to be like a butch Scorsese.

War Dogs will release Aug. 19.

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