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War Dogs
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Bros In Arms"
1 stars

When a filmmaker has a string of enormous box-office hits, they eventually get to that rarefied position where they can pretty much take on any project that they want, regardless of their suitability for it, and the studios will pony up tons of cash to let them do it in the hopes that lightning will strike once again. In the case of Todd Pihillips, the success of such films as “Old School,” “Due Date” and, of course, the inexplicably popular “Hangover” trilogy gave him an enormous amount of capital within the industry and he has chosen to invest much of it in “War Dogs,” a dark comedy that deals with subjects that most viewers would hardly view as amusing and most studios would hardly consider to be much of a audience lure—arms dealing, the war in Iraq, corruption and the complexities of the military-industrial complex among them. This is the kind of exceptionally tricky material that requires an exceedingly deft directorial touch if it is to have any chance of working and if there are three words that one could use to describe Phillips and his oeuvre, “deft directorial touch” would probably not rank very high on anyone’s list. As a result, “War Dogs” is a bloated and lumbering misfire that is neither especially funny nor edifying and seems to have nothing on its mind except to demonstrate that Phillips has indeed seen the films of Martin Scorsese, though he apparently failed to absorb what it was that made them work.

Of course, there have been a few films over the years that have dealt in some way with the subject matter on display here to much stronger effect.There is, of course, the classic comedy “Dr. Strangelove,” about which I assume no further lucubration is needed. More recently, there was the little-seen “Lord of War,” in which Nicolas Cage played a charmingly amoral arms dealer in a film that maintained a deft balance between mordant humor and righteous anger throughout (best exemplified in the stunning opening credits sequence that charted the life of a single bullet from its creation in a factory to its heartbreakingly inevitable deployment). Hell, even the generally disastrous “Deal of the Century” had a few pungent moments of dark humor about American arms dealers meddling in Central America in the hopes of making tons of money before it went downhill due to the need to be transformed into a Chevy Chase vehicle and by hiring, in William Friedkin, a great director who was perhaps the last person you would want to go to with anything that required a sense of humor. Of course, these movies—okay, maybe not so much “Deal of the Century”—demonstrated equal measures of biting wit and a genuine interest in the subject at hand that made them work. “War Dog,” on the other hand, displays precious little evidence of either one and the resulting film is all the poorer for it.

As the film opens in 2005, David Packouz (Miles Teller) is barely eking out a living as a massage therapist (and if you think that is funny, you are in luck because the phrase “massage therapist” is used throughout as a punchline almost as much as “motherfucker) to support himself and girlfriend Iz (Ana de Armas) when he reunites with long-lost childhood pal Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill). While David is barely keeping his head above water—he invested all his savings into supplying high-quality bedding for nursing homes that have no interest in his wares and Iz has just announced that she is pregnant—Efraim has been doing quite well for himself. Having spent time on the West Coast selling guns over the Internet, he has recently gone into business for himself by exploiting a government loophole requiring all bids military contracts to be offered to small companies as well as the bigger establishments. While he cannot possibly fill the huge orders, there are enough small contracts out there—too little for the bigger fish to even bother with—that can nevertheless be very profitable. Efraim offers David a job working for him and even though he is against the war in theory, the potential to make a lot of money convinces him to sign up.

There are a few hiccups along the way—at one point, the two are forced to personally deliver a shipment on a journey that at one point finds them under attack in Fallujah (at the last second, they are heroically rescued by a music cue of “Fortunate Son” followed by U.S. military aircraft)—but the money starts pouring in and even Iz, after some initial misgivings (she thought David and Efraim were selling linens to the military), is perfectly fine with the father of her child being an arms dealer. Things get complicated when they stumble upon a potentially enormous deal to sell 100 million rounds of AK-47 ammunition, an item that happens to be in ridiculously high demand. This leads to the guys coming into contact with another arms dealer (Bradley Cooper) who, because he is outlawed from doing it himself, puts them together with a warehouse in Albania with enough bullets to satisfy the order. After unexpectedly winning the contract (by inadvertently underbidding their closest competitor by millions), Dave returns to Albania to supervise the shipping and discovers to his horror that the bullets are Chinese, a big no-no in the regulations. Having already cut a number of corners on the way to making themselves wealthy, the guys hit upon the idea of repackaging the ammo to disguise its origin.While all of this is going on, David makes a few discoveries that show that his partner may be cutting even more corners in ways that could have severe repercussions—not just for their livelihoods but for their very lives.

Even without the presence of Jonah Hill in the cast, it would not take too long for most viewers to realize that “War Dogs” is meant to be Todd Phillips’s version of Martin Scorsese’s controversial “The Wolf of Wall Street” with guns and ammunition taking the place of crappy penny stocks. From a stylistic standpoint, Phillips has clearly followed the Scorsese film to a tee—like its predecessor, it contains a relentless pace, endless displays of over-the-top bad boy behavior and jaw-dropping greed, a screenplay in which practically every third line of dialogue contains some derivation of the word “fuck,” a wall-to-wall soundtrack of hit songs, copious drug use and even a brief cameo appearance from one of the real-life participants for good measure. (The real Packouz turns up in an early scene singing “Don’t Fear the Reaper” to an uncomprehending nursing home audience while his screen version fails to make a deal for his sheets.) There is one key difference between the two films, however, and it proves to be all the difference between them. The genius move of “The Wolf of Wall Street” was its daring decision to relate the entire story through the tunnel-visioned perspective of its greedy, self-centered and cheerfully amoral central character and forced us to experience his excessive lifestyle entirely through his eyes. It would have been much easier to look upon those events from the perspective of an outsider but by putting viewers right into the thick of it, it forced them to confront their own thoughts regarding mindless greed and how the ideals of the American Dream had somehow transmogrified into cries of “More, more, more!” This also proved to be a clever way of getting around what is traditionally the lamest moment in a film of this sort—the part where the anti-hero (and, by extension, the audience) is sternly lectured about how what he is doing is wrong—that forces viewers to grapple with the moral and ethical implications of what they have seen instead of having a simple lesson spoon-fed to them.

By comparison, “War Dogs” has plenty of flash but virtually no substance to speak of. From a socio-political perspective, it has virtually nothing to say aside from the notion that modern warfare is a constant opportunity for the right people to make enormous sums of money—an observation that is not exactly that fresh when you consider that Li’l Orphan Annie’s adoptive father was a war profiteer. The film has no interest about the shadowy corners of the arms dealing industry and the miseries that its practitioners can inflict, deliberately or not, in exchange for enormous personal gain. We get to see Efriam gleefully firing a rifle in slo-mo while “Wish You Were Here” ironically plays on the soundtrack but we never see a moment when the wares that he and David and dealing are put to practical use. More significantly, even though there is never a time throughout the film when either David or Efriam act like anything other than greedy, self-absorbed and overly entitled jerks, the film goes way out of its way to position the story so that Efraim is the real monster while more or less absolving David for those same crimes. Oh sure, once the enormity of what he has done comes crashing down on him, David feels a little bad about what he has done but when all is said and done, he more or less gets out of his troubles without hardly breaking a sweat and, it is implied, with people apologizing for doing him wrong and paying him off with a briefcase full of cash for good measure. Meanwhile, Efraim is depicted throughout as a coke-snorting moron who nearly sabotages every deal he is involved in with his impulsiveness and sheer venality. Imagine a version of “Goodfellas” where Ray Liotta’s character did absolutely nothing but stand by and say “Gosh” while Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci wreaked havoc and you have a vague idea of how “War Dogs” plays out.

Of course, nothing else about the film works either. Phillips cracks out pretty much every single stylistic flourish from the Scorsese playbook—extensive narration, slo-motion photography, freeze-frames and the like—but while Scorsese generally has very specific artistic reasons for deploying them in his films, Phillips uses them only to goose up material that is not particularly interesting on its own. The soundtrack is jammed with songs but the selections are so on the nose at times that they become laughable after a while. Proper casting might have helped redeem the material to a certain extent but that is not the case here—Teller and Hill lumber through the proceedings as though they are working on a cross between a lesser “Road” film and a commercial for Axe body spray and are so obnoxious after a while that, possibly for the first time ever, I began wishing for Bradley Cooper to show up and cut down on the smarminess. At least they get characters to sort of play, which is more than you can say for poor Ana de Armas, whose role as David’s girlfriend allows her only to supply the film with three specific items—cleavage, a fertile womb and, eventually, a glimmer of a conscience that gets David to thinking that maybe he isn’t operating in the most ethically sound manner possible—before pretty much disappearing from the proceedings.

The basic story of “War Dogs”—which was originally conveyed in a fairly interesting “Rolling Stone” article—is undeniably intriguing and even as you are watching it, you can almost picture how it might have worked had it been put in the hands of the right director and actors. In this case, you don’t even have to work that hard to picture it when all you have to do is get your hands on a copy of the aforementioned “Lord of War.” Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case with “War Dogs” and the result is a celebration of bro-hood that is so overstated that you can practically see the smugness rising from the screen in nearly every scene.Done properly, this is a film that should have sent you from the theater feeling angry about the things that it reveals about contemporary war profiteering and how a pair of bottom-feeding scumbags were able to exploit the system at the cost of millions of dollars and probably more than a few lives. Oh, you will walk away from the theater feeling angry, but only at yourself for picking “War Dogs” to see instead of something better.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=29792&reviewer=389
originally posted: 08/19/16 11:14:54
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User Comments

8/24/16 Matt Funny. Good enough for me. 5 stars
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  19-Aug-2016 (R)
  DVD: 22-Nov-2016


  DVD: 22-Nov-2016

Directed by
  Todd Phillips

Written by
  Stephen Chin
  Todd Phillips
  Jason Smilovic

  Miles Teller
  Jonah Hill
  Ana De Armas
  Shaun Toub
  Brenda Koo
  JB Blanc

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