War Dogs, the new film from Todd Phillips (The Hangover), is based on the real life story of AEY Inc, which became a successful arms dealing operation for the US Government in the noughties. Run by Efraim Diveroli and David Packouz (played by Jonah Hill and Miles Teller respectively), the company found quick financial success, but was soon involved in criminal activity.
The film joins a recent wave of politically-charged dark comedies and drams which aim to portray, and pick apart, the economic and political systems that hold sway. Many of these followed in the wake of the financial crisis, most recently The Big Short, with which War Dogs shares a similarity of tone. But whereas that film was righteously angry in an endearing way, Phillips’ film feels more like it is trying to be two things at once, and not quite succeeding at either.
But that’s not to say there isn’t much to enjoy in War Dogs. Although I felt the film was sometimes yearning to be both a Todd Phillips’ style bromance comedy and something more seriously satirical, there is more bite in this than there initially appears to be. In the first half, during which the film allows itself to veer into buddy comedy antics more often, I began to think it may be enjoying the morally dubious antics of its antiheroes a little too much, but as the film goes on, it develops more of an edge, and isn’t afraid to flirt with actual darkness. Jonah Hill’s portrayal of Efraim Diveroli, with his cracked, maniacal laughter, is darker in tone than it first appears, and both he and Teller have a good double act here. Teller is the straight guy by comparison, but the two of them work well together. There’s also a brief cameo role for a Todd Phillips regular which is satisfactorily creepy, and adds a welcome bit of shade to the antics of the main characters.
The film deviates from the true story of Diveroli and Packouz in a number of ways, but I felt that the liberties Phillips and his co-writers took with the story were in keeping with the overall tone, and even the more extravagant flights of fancy felt believable within the context of the film. Where the film is less successful is in its structure, which devotes too much time to the antics of its leads in the first half, and too little to the breakdown of their relationship in the final act. There’s also a thinly written role for Ana de Armas as Packouz’s partner, which to her credit de Armas makes more credible than it really ought to be.
War Dogs also reminded me, on occasion, of Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, another film co-starring Jonah Hill and dealing in a similar way with the profits of criminality. But while Scorsese’s film went full-on into the depths of its central character’s depravity, and in doing so ended up being quite scabrous in its indictment of the activities on show, War Dogs feels tonally less secure. But having said that, I did find the film to have more depth than I thought it was going to, and more political bite, all gravitating around Hill’s memorable antihero.