In the very opening scene to Todd Phillips’ War Dogs, we see Miles Teller’s David Packouz on a cold, grey, hidden away street in Albania, knelt on the ground with a gun pointed to his head. Needless to say, as we then head back in time, things don’t quite pan out as initially envisaged – and it’s a technique we often see employed by filmmakers, and so often an effective one, adding a vital sense of futility and a foreboding element to proceedings that enriches our experience in this film. It doesn’t come as a surprise either, for when we see characters vie tirelessly to achieve the American Dream, in cinema that generally means one thing: disaster.
David found himself in this predicament when he decided to give up massaging rich, middle-aged men in Florida, to team up with an old childhood friend Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), back in town and evidently doing well for himself. Though not in line with David’s ethics, nor that of his partner – the pregnant Iz (Ana de Armas) – with a baby on the way, he decides to go into business with the eccentric businessman to bid on military contracts, and exploit the ongoing war in Iraq – becoming an unaffectionately titled ‘war dog’. But the money keeps on rolling in, and then they get wind of a $300 million deal which could change their lives altogether, as they seek the assistance of the experienced, if somewhat shady Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper).
When dealing with flawed, reprehensible protagonists of this nature, it’s vital we still find a way to connect to them emotionally, to ensure that we’re invested in the narrative and their well-being; which, if without, can make for a distinctly disengaging, cold cinematic experience. Thankfully Teller ensures that’s not the case, as he carries a certain endearing quality that makes him relatable and easy to root for. The same can’t be said of Hill however, who is gloriously despicable within this title, creepy and shady – traits we’ve seen the actor pull off remarkably well before, in his career-best performance in Cyrus. He’s incredibly hard to judge, charming in parts, relentlessly dark in others – emblematic of the tone Phillips is vying for. On a more negative note, however, the character of Iz is heavily underdeveloped, as her story is an intriguing one, and yet we deviate carelessly away from it, while she serves as a cliched, annoyed wife – not well-rounded enough as a creation, not truly complimenting the core narrative as she should be.
Phillips, renowned primarily for The Hangover franchise as well as other comedies such as Old School and Road Trip, is trying his hand at drama for the first time, much in the same vein we recently saw Adam McKay do with The Big Short, and going slightly further back, David Gordon Green when he released Joe. It’s evidently a current trend amongst comedically inclined filmmakers, and while there is plenty to be admired about this first attempt for Phillips, a return back to comedy would be most welcome with his next film.