“War Dogs” seeks to answer a pretty simple question asked by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer in the film’s trailer.
“How did two 20-something young men land a $300 million Pentagon contract?”
If you keep watching the rest of the trailer, the film attempts to highlight the exploits of Jewish-American gunrunners with the same comedic precision of “The Wolf of Wall Street.” It even extolls the virtues of the film’s director, Todd Phillips, A.K.A. the “Hangover” guy.
Yes, “War Dogs” is a hilarious film, perhaps even the best comedy of the year. But it also aspires to become much more than that and largely succeeds in bringing in powerful dramatic moments as well.
Viewers become introduced into the world of “mostly” legal gunrunning through the eyes of David Packouz (Miles Teller) who quit his job massaging Miami’s rich and famous when his childhood best friend Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) convinces him to become partners in a small arms dealing business that works exclusively on government contracts. As the size of the contracts grow, the tension and danger grow for David, who’s hiding his business from his peace-loving pregnant girlfriend.
“War Dogs” jumps off the screen early in the film with its often bombastic comedy, but settles in to a nice medium between humor and surprisingly compelling dramatic moments. Viewers will likely never expect the film’s emotional stakes and might even miss some subtle beats of drama amid all the laughter.
Much like his Academy Award nominated turn in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” Hill dazzles with another outstanding effort as Diveroli. His work is just on the cusp of being over-the-top in many scenes which harken back to Hill’s time with teenage raunch comedies like “Superbad.” But it’s beautifully juxtaposed against terrific scenes of calm clarity that make Diveroli a complexly manic and depraved man who attempts to become the Al Pacino character from “Scarface” that he so admires.
While many audiences will key in on Hill’s antics and chaotic performance, Teller continues to impress with his understated, controlled effort as Packouz in both his role as the narrator and the main character of the film. Hill is able to play the gambit of emotions with Diveroli because Teller balances out the dynamic between the two friends/business partners so well. Playing against type, he does a masterful job of being the rationale everyman character to give viewers someone to relate to amid all the insanity of the gunrunning world.
Oscar nominated actor and frequent Phillips collaborator Bradley Cooper makes a small, but important appearance as an arms dealer hoping to partner with the leads on a major government contract. His performance is relatively uneven, but efficient in bringing the necessary gravitas to the part that allows for the plot to move forward convincingly.
“War Dogs” feels like a departure for Phillips, who’s spent years making R-rated comedies to varying degrees of success. But while his previous efforts like “Old School” and “The Hangover” trilogy skimp on the dramatic counterbalance to all the flatulence and sex jokes, “War Dogs” has some real moments of clarity and drama in its final act. The humor’s still there throughout and the entire film feels like a nice change of pace for Phillips and Teller, while continuing the same path of serious comedic work Hill has been choosing the last several years.
The gunrunning film doesn’t stray too far to examine the morality of these “war dogs” making money off of violence and murder, nor does it examine the issue from the side of the government purchasing all the weapons to arm third-world nations. “War Dogs” stays firmly entrenched in the bizarre series of circumstances that allowed two young relative unknowns to become major players in war profiteering business enterprises and how ridiculous these circumstances are.
With its unique blend of comedy, drama and just a pinch of action, “War Dogs” is without a doubt the best mainstream film of the summer and a must see film for adult audiences willing to check their opinions at the door and not let political leanings one way or the other affect their movie going experience.