Tuesday, 6 September 2016

War Dogs (2016) - Movie Review

A stoner war film… again. It’s weird that this is a niche that carries more than a single entry this year alone, but here we are.

The plot: David (Miles Teller), tired of his unsuccessful bed sheet business, needs a source of income that will support his family. He encounters Efraim (Jonah Hill), an old friend of his from high school, who convinces him to join in him in his own business venture: Dealing in military weapons. As they secure higher-profile contracts, up to and including the U.S. government, the trials involved in securing and transporting the hardware may be too much for David to handle.

Teller got onto my personal radar through the Divergent series, easily the only consistently entertaining element of those films. I bring this up because, of spending so long enjoying him play the complete asshole, it’s weird seeing him play what is essentially the sympathetic everyman. Specifically, because of how damn good he is at it; something tells me that I really need to get to Whiplash one of these days. You buy into what he does, why he’s doing and, when the shit hits the fan during the third act, what he is prepared to do because of what he has gone through.

Opposite him, Hill might give the single best performance of his career, intentionally annoying laugh notwithstanding. David is depicted as this fortune teller-cum-businessman; constantly bullshitting because he knows what people want to hear. In that capacity, Hill knocks it out of the park because not only does he manage to weave through the different faces he has to put on for his clientele without issue but he sells it as something kind of genuine. Like, ‘you need to keep reminding yourself that he’s acting’ kind of genuine. Bradley Cooper does well as the big-shot arms dealer, even considering the Trailer Park Guys glasses he’s been given, Kevin Pollak makes a welcome return as a dry-cleaning middle man to the middle men and Patrick St. Esprit gives a performance so scene-steal-y that, between the visage and the on-screen persona, I thought it was Tom Cruise doing his Tropic Thunder routine again.

I’m a soft lefty with a serious gripe about wars and the reasons that they’re fought. I say this both out of interest of keeping biases opaque but also to illustrate how good a job this film must have done to make me sympathise with people who trade in near-literal blood money. This is probably helped by how their actions, and war as a whole, are framed. While the introduction tries the Hangover flash-forward trick with far-lesser extent, David’s narration about the cost of war makes for a terrific tone-setter. These people aren’t monsters, not really. War may be a very dirty business, but it is still a business: Money changes hands for goods like in any other form of economics.

Through David’s dissatisfaction with his day job, we see why someone would want to cash in if it means being provided for, even if it’s dealing in weapons. As such, most of their actions are depicted, honestly, a lot like the financiers in The Big Short: It’s a usual day at the office, except for the rare occasion that you have to drive product through notorious stretches of land. It creates a more down-to-earth approach than most war films manage, mainly because it completely side-steps any questions about the morals of war itself. From the beginning of their partnership where David and Efraim admit their true political leanings, to the finale which shows just how much money can pay for, the almighty dollar’s place in the eyes of the characters is solid. It’s greed, but it’s well-depicted greed.

This film has been billed largely as a comedy, but I wouldn’t give that too much credence. And no, that isn’t because the comedy here is bad; far from it, as Hill’s on-screen aptitude makes for plenty of yucks. Rather, I say this because there is a more downplayed tone to the film than as advertised. Out of hoping that this doesn’t devolve into another Manny Lewis situation, I will treat the film as I perceive it… you know, like always? Anyway, the drama here is actually pretty good, if somewhat bland and trope-heavy when it comes to a story about a regular guy who gets involved in a life of crime thanks to an old friend.

However, while the tropes are played pretty straight, right down to the use of Scarface as a thematic motif, they’re still played well. David’s domestic life is shown reasonably well as a means of informing his character motivations, even if a few cracks appear in how its portrayed through his wife Iz (Ana de Armas), and the idea of the likeable everyday stoner getting into trouble is pretty standard and therefore difficult to screw up nowadays. Then again, this is coming from the director who had a decent work with the original Hangover and then proceeded to drive it into the ground over its two sequels, so said screw up was still possible. Then again again, even back in his school days with Hated, a documentary about the tremendously insane rocker GG Allin, Todd Phillips has had a knack for presenting unsavoury characters in interesting ways.

All in all, this film feels like the bros’ answer to Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, in that it’s essentially an episodic stoner film involving war and the people tangentially involved in it. The acting is solid, the direction shows that Phillips still has the talent where it counts and the writing takes a rather subdued and detached view of war, shown through the characters as just another business opportunity like any other. Being that morally grey and not having completely loathsome main characters is a tough order but, even with how phony Efraim is ultimately shown to be, I can’t help but enjoy watching these two go through one hell of a business trip.

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