Thursday, 18 August 2016

War Dogs

(M) ★★★

Director: Todd Phillips.

Cast: Jonah Hill, Miles Teller, Ana de Armas, Kevin Pollak, JB Blanc, Bradley Cooper.

"Mention the Fantastic Four remake one more time 
and my client will punch you in the face."

HOW did two 20-something stoners from Miami end up scoring a $300 million contract with the US government to supply weapons to armed forces in Afghanistan?

That’s exactly what the media was asking back in 2008 when the story of David Packouz and Efraim Diveroli came to light.

It’s a remarkable tale, one first told in great depth in an article by Rolling Stone journalist Guy Lawson (and his subsequent book Arms & The Dudes) and retold with a fair amount of poetic licence in this film from The Hangover trilogy director Phillips.

Packouz is played by Teller, who narrates the story of how he gave up being a masseuse, hooked up with his old school buddy Diveroli (Hill), and became an arms dealer to earn money to feed his family.

Through Packouz’s naive eyes we see he and Diveroli wade deeper into the murky world of government-endorsed gun-running, where the deals get dodgier as the dollar signs get bigger.

Wars need guns and War Dogs is an interesting insight into how those guns end up in the hands of soldiers, but first and foremost, it’s about the weird rise and inevitable fall of Packouz and Diveroli.

Hill is great in his role as Diveroli, making him an oddly charismatic yet often repulsive young man, complete with a distinctive laugh and a terrible fake tan. Teller is given the less interesting role, but they make for a good pairing. It’s the relationship between Packouz and Diveroli that ends up being the most compelling part of the film. The intriguing backdrops - which juxtaposes sunny Miami with the varying desolations of Iraq and Albania - don't hurt either.

But Phillips, using a script he co-wrote with Jason Smilovic and Stephen Chin, doesn’t nail the bigger picture. The absurdity of the situation never quite matches the tone of the film. It’s never funny enough, dark enough, or satirical enough to match the bizarreness of its subject matter, and instead plays things way too straight. It’s an edgy story delivered with no real edge, and if it’s meant to be an indictment on the American dream or the American military complex, it misses those targets too.

Instead it's merely a story about two friends who take an interesting career path – which is fine and mildly enjoyable, but feels like an underselling of the subject matter.

There are a couple of vaguely annoying directorial tics along the way – freeze frames, quotes written on screen to break the film into chapters, and an either unnecessary or under-utilised narration from Teller – but mostly War Dogs coasts by on the strengths of its stranger-than-fiction premise and its core relationship. Ultimately these factors are rewarding enough, and if nothing else, it’s another great performance from Hill.

The liberties taken with the story give the film a decent, if slow at times, structure, but the biggest let-down is that War Dogs never rises to the heights of its subject matter.

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