“War Dogs” stars Jonah Hill and Miles Teller as two 20-somethings who get government contracts to supply weapons to soldiers in the Middle East during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Todd Phillips co-writes and directs.
The trailer for this had a real “Pain & Gain” vibe, with a little bit of “The Big Short” thrown in. Now this was partially a compliment, since both of those films had solid trailers that made it seem like they would be colorful, irrelevant fun, but it also was a bit worrisome, since neither of those movies are very good. Well “War Dogs” is better than those two films and even if it isn’t as much fun as it could have been, it is still a mostly entertaining, slightly intelligent commentary on the Middle East wars.
Much like Adam McKay and “The Big Short,” “serious social commentary filmmaking” doesn’t come to mind when you think of Todd Phillips, the director of “The Hangover” and “Old School.” And while he technically has an Academy Award nomination (I mean, I say “technically” because it was a five-way nom for “Borat,” a film with basically no script), he has never really given us any actual quality films (“Hangover” and “Old School” are funny but they’re not great pieces of cinema). “War Dogs” is arguably Phillips’ best film and is by far his best directorial effort; take both those statements with as big a grain of salt as you like.
To Phillips’ credit, he never beats us over the head with any message here. He lets the audience decide for themselves when our main characters have crossed the moral line of no return, and if what the U.S. government is doing by holding open contracts is ethically alright. He for the most part balances his comedy and serious moments with surprising finesse, even if there are times an unfunny joke is played up to an awkward degree.
This film would be nothing, however, without two time-Academy Award nominee Jonah Hill (I just love typing that). Hill steals the show by playing a money-hungry gun runner who will not flinch at the idea of selling his own mother for a nickel. The entire film we get the uneasy feeling he could snap at any second and his laugh, a half chuckle partnered with a sinister grin and gleam in his eye, brings some very hardy laughs early on, even if by the end Phillips realized this was Hill’s bread and butter and milks the laugh dry.
What holds “War Dogs” back is its middle portion. After Hill and Teller (as charming as ever but never rises above serviceable) set up their company and make their first big arms deal, the film takes its foot off the gas and it shows. We see Teller with his new baby and Hill trying to make his gun running business legit, and you just want to shake the two and yell for them to get back to driving around foreign countries with illegal merchandise in the trunk (which they eventually do).
I didn’t love “War Dogs” but I was never bored, and every scene Hill is in it is impossible to take your eyes off the screen. It may not be able to carry the same amount of high energy throughout the entire film that it shows flashes of throughout, but if you just want a film with enough chuckles and brain to coast by an August evening (you know, in the DOG days of summer!!), then this may be your ticket.
Critics Rating: 6/10