Director Todd Phillips’ latest film follows two arms dealers who start at the bottom and work their way into a $300 million defense contract. War Dogs is “based on a true story” – it’s based on true events, but everything in between those events may not have the same level of truth.
David (Miles Teller), a down on his luck massage therapist runs into his childhood friend Efraim (Jonah Hill). Efraim is a loud-mouthed, weed smoking, gun dealer who just started a new business selling weapons. What his company does is simple – they bid on defense contracts. They aren’t big enough to go after the big fish, but they eat all the crumbs left behind. Efraim offers David a job and the two become very successful arms dealers.
Though they are partners and friends, David and Efraim are completely different men (more on this later). David is a boyfriend and a father who wants to use this opportunity to take care of his girlfriend (played by Ana de Armas) and daughter. Efraim is the opposite. He’s a hothead who enjoys cocaine, prostitutes, and he doesn’t mind breaking the law. It’s unclear if he has any friends outside of David.
Like Wolf of Wall Street, the story attempts to tackle a very serious issue, wrap it in absurdness, and deliver it to the people. The hope is that moviegoers will be entertained, yet go home with few nuggets of truth. And like The Big Short and Margin Call, War Dogs tries to give audiences a peek behind the curtain to show what really goes on with defense contracts. Having Jonah Hill and Miles Teller would allow the film to educate and entertain.
But it fails at doing both.
The story misses the bulls-eye a few times. The biggest miss is not showing how the bidding for contracts work. If audiences are going to need to feel the stakes, they need to know what they are. There are plenty of scenes that involve people starring at computer screens while lazy narration blares in the background. How it works is never shown. Instead of David’s narration being used like Captain Kirk logging in his star-date, use that time to explain the contracts and the money.
The second big issue is the main characters. There’s nothing wrong with Jonah Hill or Miles Teller’s performances. The problem is how David and Efraim are showcased. They’re attitudes are so far apart, it’s amazing these two are business partners and friends. David is painted as a Boy Scout who runs guns, while Efraim is a wild card waiting to go off on someone. Maybe characterizing Efraim in such a negative way was to give the movie a “villain”, even when the real villain is greed.
How much the U.S spends on war and how that movie comes/goes is very interesting. How the contracts work is even more interesting. The people the U.S government doesn’t business with is the most interesting thing. Sadly, this story barley touches on these topics. Instead of explaining these issues, the story pivots back to David looking conflicted or Efraim having an outburst.
The movie is missing the balance of drama and comedy that makes these types of films work. For a film about a memorable case, nothing memorable happens. The whole movie feels uneven. The characters are uneven. The stakes are uneven. Even the ending leaves a lot to be desired. There’s a good movie in there somewhere. The film struggles to juggle comedy and drama so it settles on not doing either of them well.
The great performances from Teller and Hill stop the film from being a complete bore. War Dogs may not have the box office success Warner Bros hoped it would have, but it will be a movie that shows up on TNT and keeps your attention just long enough to finish your cardio. You won’t be sad you watched it, but you won’t have a desire to see it again.