If you’re going to borrow, you might as well borrow from the best. And to its credit, War Dogs borrows from some pretty mighty films, most by Scorsese, telling this bizarre real-life tale of what star Jonah Hill referred to intro’ing the Toronto premiere as “two American schmuck assholes”.
David, the second sphincter in question played by Miles Teller, is shown to be a hard working if slightly misguided masseur, confronting the wealthy only when rubbing oil into their backs. When his best friend Efraim comes back to town with a plan to use military procurement processes to make a mint, things get very strange indeed.
Based on a Rolling Stone article, this true life tale of a couple of bros unwittingly becoming arms smugglers is snappy, droll and a heck of a lot of fun. With sardonic voiceover, punchy tunes and kinetic camerawork redolent of the likes of Casino, Goodfellas and Wolf of Wall Street, it’s easy to see that director Todd Phillip’s post-Hangover binging is decidedly fueled by the master named Marty. The characters themselves look to DePalma for inspiration, and even the poster echoes Scarface. Yet none of this riffs feel forced or cloying, instead more variations upon a theme, a film that knows what sandbox it’s playing in and still manages to build its own kind of castle.
Teller has come under a bunch of heat post-Whiplash, and he’s better here than he has been in other franchise work of late. Yet it’s Hill’s broad character that’s truly compelling, no surprise from this Oscar-nominated thespian yet still a welcome rush every time he brings his A-game. With a wheezy laugh and slicked back hair, his Efraim seems perfectly believable as exactly the kind of smart, savvy and douchey guy that would mastermind such a scheme and still find time to fuck over his compatriots.
Applause as well for Kevin Pollak, another rube who like Hill is part of the Scorsese retinue. Last time he played the patsy was against DeNiro, and here his take on the Zionist drycleaner is equally filled with bathos.
Then there’s Bradley Cooper, the most Phillipsian of the cast, a lone wolf renegade who rocks wire-rimmed glasses with a welcoming menace. As part of the film takes place in the churn of Las Vegas it’s nice to see echoes of what made director and star household names, and from the dreary murk of Albany to the sundrenched austerity of a modernist Miami condo he seems perfectly at ease.
Any true-to-life tale often gets bogged down either in its moralizing or its pedantry, and to the film’s credit it manages to avoid those pitfalls. There are a few clumsy things that seem a bit too trite (perhaps a photocopier or scanner would have been a good investment for a business partnership), but other than these contrivances the rest feels a delightful mix of insane yet plausible.
It’s a tale told with verve and moxie, touching upon the general insanity of the situation while providing a modicum of political and social comment. Buttressed with powerful performances, exotic settings and whipsnap dialogue, there’s lots to love about War Dogs, a welcome reminder that summer films can be fun, original, and clever.