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War Dogs Reaches For Greatness (And Almost Gets There)

For some comedy directors, making audiences laugh is the one and only objective. That never seemed to be the case with Todd Phillips. Best known for directing movies like Old School and The Hangover trilogy, Phillips started his career with a pair of gruelling, intense (and yes, funny) documentaries: Hated and Frat House. Since then, he has devoted most of his energy to comedy, but his visual competence and uniquely anarchic sensibility has always suggested a potential for something a little more daring. With War Dogs, he finally delivers on that promise, making a transition to credible, reality-based—if not quite dramatic—storytelling, a leap comparable to the one Adam McKay (Anchorman, Talladega Nights) made with last year’s Oscar-winning The Big Short.

In its opening minutes, War Dogs immediately announces itself as a return to Phillips’ documentary roots. As Miles Teller’s David Packouz explains the military industrial complex, we see real American troops with digital price tags emerging from every piece of over-priced armor, clothing, and weaponry. From there, Phillips tells the true story of Packouz’s reunion with childhood friend Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), a deeply misguided businessman who has found a way to bid on undesirable—but still profitable—military contracts. In spite of this duo’s lack of knowledge or experience, they soon find themselves coordinating multi-million dollar deals and traveling to unstable, war-torn regions to see those deals through. Eventually, this brings them into contact with an even more unsavoury arms dealer, Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper), and a plan that threatens to unravel in terrifying new ways.

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As the film’s central duo, Miles Teller and Jonah Hill make an odd—but undeniably intriguing—couple. As always, Hill is amusingly unhinged, delivering bizarre comic flourishes throughout. (His weird laugh is a recurring highlight.) Playing a naive everyman, Teller avoids the flamboyant extremes of Hill’s performance, but this contrast is central to the film’s appeal. After a string of generic comedies, Divergent sequels, and the unanimously despised Fantastic Four, Teller finally recaptures the urgency of his harrowing turn in 2014’s Whiplash.

Thanks to the presence of Jonah Hill and the film’s focus on entrepreneurial criminality, War Dogs will inevitably earn comparisons to The Wolf of Wall Street, but Phillips is equally interested in channeling the Martin Scorsese of Goodfellas and Casino. With no shortage of speedy dolly moves, freeze frames, and irreverent voice-over, the legendary auteur’s influence is felt throughout. So what stops War Dogs from reaching the heights of a Scorsese classic? In short, it lacks the thematic weight of Scorsese’s best films, and fails to find complexity—or any discernible inner life—in these characters.

Phillips pokes satirical fun at many deserving targets, but it’s difficult to root for a pair of wildly amoral characters who deceive everyone in their lives (including one another) in pursuit of money and not much else. Other than that, we’re given little sense of what drives, stimulates, or excites David and Efraim—or gives their lives meaning. A case could be made that this shallowness is at the heart of Phillips’ critique, but it nonetheless leaves a void at the centre of an otherwise engrossing, inventive, and well-crafted film. Of course, in the current moviegoing climate, arguing that a film falls a little short of greatness is high praise. If you’re lucky enough to get a summer crowd-pleaser that wrestles with issues of global consequence and owes a heavy debt to Martin Scorsese, you really have nothing to complain about.

War Dogs arrives in theatres today. The film’s marketing campaign promises something far goofier than the film itself, so be sure to keep that in mind while watching the trailer below.

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