“War Dogs” plays like a movie made by someone who has spent a life in cinematic isolation, watching nothing but “The Big Short” and “Goodfellas” on a constant loop.
The gun-running bro-bonding comedy/drama is successful at capturing the surface vibe of those films, with a crowd-pleasing breakdown of military economics, and rapid-fire storytelling that fits three movies worth of exposition into a two-hour running time.
But the film falters when it needs to swerve away from the rollicking time and into an emotional climax. When wolf pack behavior leads to real-life consequences, “War Dogs” mostly looks the other way.
The film is a departure for Todd Phillips, who has been unfairly maligned as a filmmaker, perhaps because his two worst films (“The Hangover Part II” and “The Hangover Part III”) made a ton of money. The Phillips-directed “Old School” is one of the most replay-able comedy hits of the last two decades, and “Road Trip” and “Starsky & Hutch” are both underrated.
With “War Dogs,” it feels as if Phillips is moving from the Monopoly table, and playing poker with real stakes. Miles Teller is David, a struggling young entrepreneur hustling a series of difficult, mostly humiliating dead-end jobs. When his sketchy old friend Efraim (Jonah Hill) arrives with an offer to work as middlemen selling guns to the U.S. military, the lure is strong.
Teller is reliably likable and Hill is particularly excellent in the live wire role, paying homage to Joe Pesci without turning the performance into imitation. As the pair delves into increasingly harrowing (and comic) situations, Hill effectively straddles the line between exuberance and menace.
Classic rock songs play as David and Efraim execute and celebrate a series of heist-like deals, and survive the latest near-death experience. Like “The Hangover,” this film seems to seek an audience of mostly men, high-fiving across the aisle.
It’s a credit to the Phillips script, based on real-life weapons-traders profiled in a Guy Lawson Rolling Stone article, that the narrative holds together. “War Dogs” plays like a remedial “The Big Short” – if anything over-explaining with a series of graphics, montages and past tense voice-overs.
But the movie fails when it’s repercussion time, and the party mostly keeps on going. “War Dogs” introduces the moral struggles of an anti-war gun runner, but doesn’t adequately follow up.
The later scenes feature too-convenient mistakes by the protagonists, and some abrupt resolutions, suggesting a lot of important material left on the editing room floor. The final sequence in particular feels like a vague cop out, as if a concrete real-world resolution would have cut too much into the fun.
What’s left is a solid piece of in-the-moment entertainment, that fails in its attempt to be something more. Even with all of the Henry Hill/“Goodfellas” moves, the takeaway doesn’t feel much deeper than a bad night for “Old School” goofball Frank the Tank.
☆ ☆ 1/2
Cast: Jonah Hill, Miles Teller, Bradley Cooper.
Director: Todd Phillips.
Running time: 114 minutes.
Rating: R (language throughout, drug use and some sexual references).