Film Review | That sweet, sweet moral vacuum

War Dogs makes room for a little hand-holding, which somewhat muddies the moral waters • 4/5

Hustle on target: Miles Teller and Jonah Hill excel in Todd Philip’s sucker-punch of a movie
Hustle on target: Miles Teller and Jonah Hill excel in Todd Philip’s sucker-punch of a movie

War Dogs is The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) with crooked arms dealers instead of crooked stockbrokers. One film features Martin Scorsese trademarks like dramatic flash-forwards that are suddenly freeze-framed to allow for ironic, expository narration… the other is actually directed by Scorsese. 

Both films showcase how the capitalist system is a grotesque beast when taken to its logical conclusion of excess and total greed. And both films feature Jonah Hill as their primary supporting actor. 

But where The Wolf of Wall Street allows no light to peek through – with Leonardo Di Caprio’s Jordan Belfort remaining an unrepentant sleazeball throughout – War Dogs does make room for a little hand-holding, which somewhat muddies the moral waters of this otherwise engaging film from director Todd Phillips, previously known for helming the ‘Hangover’ trilogy.  

When David (Miles Teller), a dissatisfied massage therapist in Miami, meets an old school friend, Efraim (Jonah Hill) at a mutual friend’s funeral, the last thing he expects is for the friendship to blossom into a life-changing turn of events. You see, in his absence from his former local community, Efraim has been keeping busy. Specifically, the tricksy, entrepreneurial soul has been looking into ways of gaming the American arms dealing system in his favour – taking advantage of the “clusterfuck” that was the Iraq war to carve a niche for himself as a small-time but profit-making arms dealer… all from the comfort of his own home. 

At first, David is content to see this scintillating – and corpulent – creature go about its devilish work, but when his wife Iz (Ana de Armas) announces that a baby is on the way, the reality of his economic situation leads him to team up with Efraim in his ever-expanding little empire. Things appear to go swimmingly at first, but when their job takes them to Afghanistan, it could also lead to a point of no return for the ambitious young duo. 

The trailer didn’t promise all that much. Clearly capitalizing – pun not intended – on the success of The Wolf of Wall Street and dragging in the director of the Hangover films to ‘sex up’ a story about young arms dealers reveling in their moral vacuity, the promotional material for War Dogs suggested little else other than some raunchy fun at the expense of a very upsetting micro-chapter of the Iraq War, and its fallout. 

Trouble in paradise: Teller and Ana de Armas
Trouble in paradise: Teller and Ana de Armas

Thankfully, the film fares a lot better in the long stretch, even if some of its more sensational details were culled from other real-life sources: namely, the trailer-friendly scene where the duo are doing their best to evade hostile forces in Fallujah, which was actually taken from screenwriter Stephen Chin’s own experiences. 

But cleaving closer to another story of young millennials making obscene amounts of cash while displaying very little ethical fortitude, as with David Fincher’s The Social Network – itself based on an openly fictionalized account of what went on between the expanding walls of Facebook – a little bit of license does War Dogs a world of good. 

Apart from the fact that David is painted in brush strokes that are too kindly – he’s chastised by his wife, yes, but appears to be in possession of a fully-functioning conscience throughout – the character arcs are well-rounded, and the beats of the script – penned by Chin, Phillips and Jason Smilovic – are perfectly poised to deliver the story of a rise, a downfall and all the complications in between. 

What shines the brightest out of this concoction, however, is Todd Phillip’s emergence as a director who isn’t, in fact, a one-trick pony. The injection of ‘frat boy’ humour is probably what hooked investors, and will hook a larger audience into, the film, but Phillips handles the heavier material just as deftly, with a twist of ambiguity towards the end that leaves a disquieting after-taste.

A compelling real-life story to begin with, spiced with some cleverly injected departures from the truth and told by a director keen to mature out of his comfort zone.

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