What it's about:
Two 20-something friends living in Miami Beach during the Iraq War exploit a little-known government initiative that allows small businesses to bid on U.S. Military contracts. Starting small, they begin raking in big money and are living the high life, until they get in over their heads after landing a 300-million-dollar deal to arm the Afghan Military—a deal that puts them in business with some very shady people, not the least of which turn out to be from the U.S. Government.
What we thought:
By far the most noteworthy thing about War Dogs is just how utterly un-noteworthy it is. The story on which it is based may be pretty amazing for something in real life but, as a film, there is nothing here that we haven't seen many times before, often done quite a bit better.
That's not to say that War Dogs is a bad movie, though. It's competently put together, typically well acted by its leads (both Jonah Hill and Miles Teller have really become very fine actors over the years) and basically perfectly enjoyable in an utterly innocuous but rollickingly entertaining kind of way.
The problem, though, is that it couldn't help but bring to mind two wildly superior films from recent years, albeit for different reasons.
First, and most obviously, War Dogs clearly wants to be the Wolf of Wall Street – or at least Goodfellas or any of those very distinctive Scorsese films – in everything from its voice-over to its sleek and slick depiction of less than moral activities but, to say the least, director Todd Phillips is no Martin Scorsese. It's also strange that for a film that's based on real-life, it's alarmingly formulaic, to the point that the audience is always at least two or three steps ahead of the characters at all times.
It's also hard not to compare War Dogs with the Big Short. Not so much in terms of style (though the Big Short is even more self-consciously stylish than War Dogs sort of wishes it was) or even content – though there are definite similarities in the legal-but-immoral plots of both – but in that both films are more serious and satirical takes on real-life matters from directors who were previously known entirely for their silly, but often very funny, frat boy comedies.
The difference, though, is that while Adam McCay's transition from Anchorman and just about every other Will Ferrell comedy ever to the sharper and darker comedy-drama of the Big Short was smooth to the point it actually looked like he had been making these sorts of films his whole life, Todd Phillips clearly struggles to bring any distinctive style or personality to War Dogs. Again, not that he does a bad job but he just never manages to transcend his many influences to turn out something truly special. It's also surprisingly lacking in any real laughs.
Ultimately, perhaps the biggest problem is that, quite unlike the weird and mysterious world of finance, where there was at least once the idea that there is some honour to be found in our capitalist systems and we're still coming to terms with just how corrupt it's all become, there's nothing exactly surprising about the arms industry is hideous to its very bones. The film starts with an extremely cynical look at warfare as nothing but a money making racket and, though that might have been surprising before the first World War, it's pretty much a given now. It's still sickening, to be sure, but it's still nothing new.
Still, all this said, if you're in the mood for nothing but a fun time at the movies, War Dogs isn't a bad choice but it's nothing to rush out and see.
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