In a way, War Dogs is a bit of a companion piece to The Big Short. We have a director (Todd Phillips) known for humorous material making a more serious and based on true events effort about controversial policies during the Bush/Cheney era. We have a mix of dramatic and comedic actors telling the tale. However, whereas Adam McKay’s aforementioned 2014 picture was a big success, Dogs falls short.
Its failings are certainly not due to lack of an interesting story. We begin in 2005 when the Iraq conflict is at its height. While the war is dividing a nation, David (Miles Teller) is living a carefree existence in Miami as a massage therapist. His major conflict is making enough cash to support him and his pregnant girlfriend (Ana de Armas). David’s financial issues are provided a boost when he runs into his junior high best bud Efraim (Jonah Hill). He seems to be doing just fine and David soon discovers his old friend is making a killing as an arms dealer selling product to the U.S. government. Efraim soon cuts David in as a partner and their deals bring them to the Middle East, including drab Albania. It is that deal, involving selling 100 million rounds of ammo to the military, that will provide their windfall payload. It also provides all sorts of dangerous problems.
Dogs wags an understandable critical finger at the ease in which these twentysomethings with zero government or defense experience managed their exploits. As Efraim and David become richer than they ever could have envisioned, their trappings of wealth storyline feels awfully familiar. David’s relationship suffers, Efraim’s already diabolical personality grows out of control, etc… Yes, this may be a true story, but all this material felt truly well-worn.
As for performances, Hill has shown himself to be adept at both funny stuff and less funny stuff (Moneyball and The Wolf of Wall Street as the prime examples). His performance here isn’t near as effective and I couldn’t escape the notion that he seemed to be trying a bit too hard to pull off his bad guy role. Teller is a talent as well (Whiplash as prime example), but his work here is a couple notches above bland. Bradley Cooper turns up for a few minutes as a shady dealer whose character is just interesting enough that I would’ve liked to see him more.
The source material (based on a Rolling Stone article) should have garnered a richer experience than what Phillips gives us. War Dogs has plenty in common with The Big Short in terms of personnel involved, but little in common with it as to lasting impression.
** (out of four)