Back in the 1950s and 1960s, studios would release films specifically designated as "Morality Tales." They were films that existed to show American audiences characters who were rough around the edges, given a choice between doing the right thing and the easy thing. As American filmmaking entered the glorious mid-'60s, characters took on the anti-hero theme as the Vietnam War, Nixon-era politics and the New Hollywood era of filmmakers came into the forefront.
"War Dogs" feels like a morality tale from a bygone era, only set around the ultra-modern profession of arms dealing in the early-2000s portion of the Iraq war. Miles Teller plays David Packouz, a massage therapist trying to break out of his lower middle class life into something better. When he runs into Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), an old grade school friend, he sees a way out of his humdrum existence.
Diveroli has been making quite a bit of cash selling weapons to the United States military and is looking for a partner. Packouz is anti-war and doesn't feel great about diving head first into the world of gun running, but the cheddar is just too good to say no. The old friends team up and slowly but surely get in way over their heads with people who do not suffer fools gladly.
"War Dogs" is easiest to compare to "The Wolf of Wall Street" in that they both look at morally-dubious people doing horrible things while making it all look like a barrel of laughs. The biggest difference is that "Wolf" was an indictment of Jordan Belfort and his cronies, while "Dogs" has too light of a touch to feel like it's saying much of anything at all. "Wolf" never sympathizes with Belfort, but "Dogs" definitely stays in Packouz's corner, lending him our ear for all of his troubles." In other words, the audience is his constant sounding board for his guilty conscience.
If the film played as anti-war or pro-guns or even somewhere in the middle, it might work better, but the film stays almost too safe when it comes to the story being told. Both men end up breaking the law and doing some incredibly shady things to make money, but even when things are at their most dangerous it all seems like a bit of a laugh.
That's not to say "War Dogs" isn't a good movie. It's anchored by the solid performances of Hill and Teller (and an excellent extended cameo by Bradley Cooper) and Todd Phillips does a much better job here than he did on the last "Hangover" movie. The film's 114-minute runtime flies by and it stays entertaining the entire time, but there's just not much to hang on it. By the time this is released on DVD and Blu-ray, it will be entirely forgotten.
A film doesn't need to pick sides to be a good movie, especially when it's based on true events. Yet "War Dogs" is based on a short Rolling Stone article, so much of the story is fabricated anyway. Everything just comes across as extremely easy and for a subject as deadly serious as gun running to Iraq, it seems like a more serious take on the material would have been warranted. While a wag of the finger might have been a bit much, it still would have been better than a laconic shrug of the shoulders.
Dir. Todd Phillips
Now playing at Old Mill Stadium 16 & IMAX