Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 21, 2016)
Best-known for comedies like The Hangover and its sequels, director Todd Phillips embraces a more dramatic tone with 2016’s War Dogs. Set in 2005, we meet David Packouz (Miles Teller), a young Miami resident who struggles to earn a living – a factor that becomes more stressful when his girlfriend Iz (Ana de Armas) gets pregnant.
During a funeral for a mutual friend, David runs into Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), his childhood pal. David learns that Efraim operates a firm called AEY – and that his old buddy now sells arms to the government.
Efraim offers David a job, one that David doesn’t initially accept. However, desperate for funds, he agrees to partner with his friend, and this leads David down many wild roads.
While Dogs gives Phillips a chance to broaden his cinematic horizons, the end result deviates from his norm less than one might expect. Sure, the film offers more drama and tension than one would get from the usual Phillips comedic romp, but the director relies on his standard techniques more than he should.
In a way, Dogs feels like an extension of 2013’s Hangover Part III. The least successful of the series, that one largely eschewed the “gross-out” humor of the first two and it embraced a darker tone.
That movie certainly opted for more comedy than we find in Dogs, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to view the 2016 film as the next step after Hangover III. The big difference is that Hangover III tended to be a comedy with action/drama overtones, whereas Dogs presents an action/drama with comedic flourishes.
Perhaps because Phillips comes from such a heavy comedy background, the former approach works better. In Dogs, Phillips lacks the self-confidence to give the movie the dramatic edge it needs, so he peppers the tale with too many comedic tidbits.
Granted, some of this makes sense. David and Efraim find themselves in a world that’d be crazed for anyone, but their “fish out of water” vibe becomes intensified by their youth and inexperience. The movie focuses on these moments and can create some entertaining moments with them.
A lack of consistency harms Dogs, though, especially related to the characters. In particular, the film presents Efraim in a manner that doesn’t really fit, as it turns him into little more than a stock movie villain.
I didn’t investigate how much truth appears in Dogs, so I don’t know how the real Efraim and David dealt with each other. Perhaps the story depicts the actual person well and Diveroli really did screw over his buddy in this manner.
Whatever the facts may be, the depiction feels false, and it doesn’t help that Hill plays Efraim in such an unhinged, snarling manner. With his weird, asthmatic cackle and off-putting attitude, it becomes tough to believe David would ever trust Efraim – at least not as played by Hill. I like Hill as an actor but he goes too dark for this thin performance.
The movie’s promotional art consciously echoes the poster for 1983’s Scarface. This might just seem like something that exists as a cute spoof, but instead, the connection between the two films runs deeper, as we see how Scarface influences Efraim’s life. The story plays out as a rise to power/cautionary tale and wears that influence on its sleeve.
The bigger impact probably comes from Scorsese, though, as Dogs boasts a clear GoodFellas influence. Boy, does Phillips show a lot of nods toward the 1990 classic! Dogs also reminds me a lot of 2015’s Big Short, another drama from a comedy director, especially in the way we learn of the technical elements behind the schemes.
All of this leaves War Dogs as a derivative piece, but not a wholly unsuccessful one. The basic plot comes with enough juice to keep us interested for a while, and Phillips manages to stage much of the first half well enough to grab the viewer.
After a while, though, matters sputter. The longer the movie goes, the less interesting it becomes, so it loses a lot of steam as it progresses. Although I won’t call the second half boring, it shows diminished returns and leaves us a little impatient to get to the finish line.
As it stands, War Dogs presents a moderately entertaining affair. At times, it manages to give us a wacked-out tale of improbable success, but it drags too much and suffers from thematic inconsistencies.