War Dogs is the latest film in a trend started by Martin Scorcese’s 2013 film The Wolf of Wall Street, with stylistic roots that go back further, to 1990’s Goodfellas. That formula: tell a crazy-but-true story, starring morally bankrupt characters (nearly always white men), that uses their awful behavior, and the trappings of their privilege, to shed a snarky light on America’s culture of greed, and the political practices that support it. This backwards morality play approach worked relatively well for Wolf of Wall Street (though the line between satire and glorification was so thin it’s arguable it even existed), and was perfected in last year’s great The Big Short.
But War Dogs, though it comes complete with a frat boy humor pedigree (director and co-writer Todd Phillips is behind the Hangover movies), falls far short of the movies it aspires to be. The film had the potential be a subversive commentary on the international arms industry and American ideas of success. Instead it’s a dull slog that feels longer than it is, and essentially accomplishes nothing but a few cheap laughs.
The true story of the movie is that of arms dealers and best buddies David Packouz (Miles Teller) and Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill). Packouz is a college dropout living in Miami with his girlfriend. A chance encounter with Diveroli, his former middle school friend, at a funeral leads to a business partnership. This eventually balloons into the two men making millions of dollars through arms contracts with the U.S. military during the Iraq war, before bad business practices and infighting bring the whole thing crashing down.
Neither Diveroli nor Packouz, who also serves as the film’s narrator, are interesting enough to serve as compelling characters. Packouz makes for a colorless protagonist. He’s not a crass braggart like Wolf of Wall Street’s Jordan Belfort, nor a know-it-all insider like The Big Short’s Jared Vennett. He has no defining characteristics, nothing to make us identify with him, or even despise him. The most Hill’s Diveroli gets in terms of characterization is a weird laugh and a fascination with the movie Scarface.
Making it worse is that Phillips pins the entire movie on the relationship between two characters we aren’t given much cause to care about. The film’s weapons industry setting is just a goofy setup for a buddy comedy, starring two boring buddies. Opportunities to explain the details of the arms trade go barely explored. You’ll probably leave War Dogs with the same amount of knowledge on the topic of gun running as you had going in.
War Dogs mistakes imitated style for substance, and general crassness for edginess. In a time when we see the effects of war and gun violence on our newsfeeds not only daily, but seemingly hourly, you’d hope that a movie on arms dealers would do more than acknowledge the grim truths about its business, or at least address the white privilege its characters clearly flaunt. Those ideas may be lingering at the back of the movie somewhere, but for the most part, the film is more interested in cashing in on the trend it’s part of than understanding the point of that trend in the first place.