2016, R, 114 min. Directed by Todd Phillips. Starring Jonah Hill, Miles Teller, Ana de Armas, Kevin Pollak, Bradley Cooper, Patrick St. Esprit, Shaun Toub, Gabriel Spahiu.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Aug. 19, 2016
A South Beach massage therapist, so polite in his pink polo shirt, David (Teller) dreams big but has failed hard in his various entrepreneurial schemes. Then his childhood friend, the flashy, erratic Ephraim (Hill), offers him a ticket to riches as a partner in his small shop supplying weapons to the U.S. military. At first, David is on the fence – he and his girlfriend protested against the Iraq War, after all – but it’s a lot easier to swallow his misgivings once the money starts pouring in. As their business grows, the ethics of what they do – including personally smuggling arms across war-torn Iraq – grows more slippery, too, culminating in a massive government contract to ship 100 million rounds of ammo of questionable origin to Afghanistan.
Like last year’s The Big Short, this true-life tale couldn’t be more emblematic of our cynical age, wherein the time-honored, bootstrap path to the American Dream has been replaced with cutting corners and cheating the system. And it’s no stretch to imagine director Todd Phillips as the right man for the job: This may be his first outright drama, but his ever-bleakening Hangover trilogy was built around the assumption of an essential meanness in the human spirit. Ugly Americans are already his métier.
But War Dogs doesn’t trust the audience to connect the dots. (Ephraim is the first to call himself an ugly American, as he’s shoving his way to the front of a customs line.) Certainly, there’s a lot of exposition required to convey the ins and outs of international gunrunning, but Phillips – with co-screenwriters Stephen Chin and Jason Smilovic, adapting a Rolling Stone article by Guy Lawson – overuse Teller’s voiceover to the point of exhaustion. The soundtrack, too, is a regular bludgeoning, a setup-and-punchline assemblage of overly literal, Time Life music compilation-like songs. Traveling overseas? Cue Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger.” Heading into a war zone? Why not use the same CCR song Forrest Gump did? Not sure the audience got the message that everybody knows everything’s fucked? Here, have some Leonard Cohen.
But does everybody know how good Jonah Hill’s gotten? He’s first-billed here, but he’s playing more of a Harry Lime-like cipher – an oil slick of malevolence that Teller’s hero-simp keeps slipping in. Whenever War Dogs plods, close your eyes and count the seconds. Hill’s next deranged little giggle will be along shortly to pick you up.