by Lachlan Anderson
Rated M. Starring Miles Teller, Jonah Hill. Directed by Todd Phillips.
‘An American Dream’
That’s the tagline for new comedy-drama film War Dogs. The latest film from Todd Phillips (Old School, The Hangover trilogy) isn’t about a white picket fence and a two-car garage though. This American dream is all about guns and corruption.
David Packouz (Teller) is struggling to find direction in life as he lives in Miami with his girlfriend and makes ends meet selling bed sheets to nursing homes and massaging rich people. He sees his chance to make big money when his childhood best friend Efraim (Hill) offers him a chance to become an international arms dealer. As the pair goes up the ladder in the lucrative world of arms they also spiral downwards into moral ambiguity.
If you’re familiar with Todd Phillips’ previous work you might be expecting something from War Dogs that isn’t there. It’s his most restrained film to date, which says a lot considering the language, sexual references and drug use throughout. It’s also not a straight out comedy. There are plenty of funny moments but the tone is unmistakably dramatic. Phillip’s restraint is a welcome change to his usually incredibly over the top style and he makes good on smaller gags, like a musician singing ‘Don’t Fear the Reaper’ to a nursing home audience. Both Teller and Hill deliver commendable acting efforts, particularly Hill who shines as an insufferable and obnoxious jerk. He is basically Hill’s character in Martin Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street.
The comparison doesn’t end there though. In stepping away from outrageous frat-boy comedy, Phillips borrows a lot from Scorsese’s gangster films to get a drama with a lot of zing. It’s a good style for this type of story but it also feels like there’s a lot more he could have done with the format. At times the corruption of the film’s protagonists is a little undercooked and could have perhaps benefited from a bit more edge, just to drive the point home. If you want to watch moral decay done well, Scorsese’s films are perhaps the best place to start.
We are all like David, looking for fulfilment in our lives. There’s always going to be the temptation to throw our convictions to the wind in pursuit of money, sex, fame or comfort. What this film, and others just like it, highlight so well is the certainty of that a life lived for excess doesn’t satisfy. Whilst Efraim is essentially amoral for the whole film, David constantly questions his own choices and betrays the trust of his loved ones. Ultimately all the money he acquires isn’t an escape from disillusionment and will only make him thirstier for satisfaction. The only way to be fulfilled in this life is to live for Jesus, who offers what we really need and who can quench our thirst. John 4:13-14 –
“…but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
The Verdict: A welcome change of pace for the comedy director aided by strong performances by the film’s stars. It borrows the strong elements from films like Wolf of Wall Street and Lord of War but doesn’t manage to do anything new with this type of story and plays more like an enjoyable Scorsese homage. 3/5
War Dogs is screening now in cinemas worldwide.