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Todd Phillips Gets Real in War Dogs

          War Dogs was not the movie I expected from someone like Todd Phillips. It’s a much less overtly comedic film than was advertised, in fact it’s often quite serious. Which is a really interesting shift from the guy who directed The Hangover
          The somewhat-true story follows David Packouz (Miles Teller) a 20-something massage therapist in L.A. who when his wife reveals she’s pregnant, joins up with his old friend from middle school Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) to become international arms dealers for the U.S. forces in Iraq. At first acting within the law, as they grow their business and land more and more high-paying deals they begin to resort to highly criminal activities.
          The story plays out like a lot of these true story movies about people making their fortunes through corrupt or criminal means. Films like The Wolf of Wall Street, The Big Short, and of course as referenced a number of times in this film, Scarface. And so it comes with a lot of the trappings of those kind of films that feel a little too familiar and uninteresting. In addition to the exorbitant voice-over narration (which I swear covers a quarter of the film), you get the scenes showing off their indulgence and luxurious lifestyles, cocaine snorting, marital troubles, and a number of quick-cut montages to classic rock songs (this movie does have a pretty good soundtrack). The editing is also nothing new for this kind of film, with lots of establishing shots that quickly cut to the characters or their merchandise. Movies like this are also deprived of some suspense given that you know the outcome will most likely be the heroes getting caught and the downfall of their empire. So considering War Dogs has to play out this way, it has that hurdle to cross, but the movie throws in a couple twists and turns that may or may not have actually happened, but do make the movie more entertaining. For instance, one of their earliest deals goes awry when a heavy load of barettas is detained at the Jordanian border. So David and Efraim have to fly to Jordan and deliver them to Baghdad themselves in a detour that’s both funny and thrilling. It’s one of the cases where I’m not hung up on the fabrications, possibly because it doesn’t alter the outcome of events. And the ending is actually a really good pay-off, with a couple satisfactory moments. There’s a degree of irony in how their story ends and who brings it about.
          Miles Teller is pretty good in the role of the straight man allured by the prospect of wealth and thus, comfort for his growing family. His wife played by Ana de Armas is good too and their fracturing relationship as he keeps most of his business secret from her is one of the film’s better conveyed dramatic arcs. Then there’s Jonah Hill who’s as unlikeable as he can be in this role. In everything from his annoying laugh to his obnoxious behaviour, he’s really awful, just all round unpleasant, a double crosser, and too cavalier about illegal deals. Hill plays his insatiable greed very well though, and he and Teller have alright chemistry. I like how the film emphasizes David and Efraim are out of their element. It’s unbelievable, how far they’re able to go. Kevin Pollack’s also in this movie, and though he doesn’t appear a whole lot, Bradley Cooper makes the most of his role as a suspected terrorist brought into the picture.
          Another thing this movie does pretty decently is the writing. Bar the frequent voice-over exposition, the script brings the character’s personalities to life and makes both the drama and comedy work effectively. You’re really reminded without it being stated explicitly how young these guys are (though not quite as astonishingly as they were in real-life, being less than twenty-one when this all started in 2005). And the cinematography as with other Todd Phillips movies, is surprisingly quite good. 
          War Dogs isn’t the most exciting a movie, and a lot of the plot elements are very similar to other movies of this sort. It’s easy to see where the story’s going and this can make for a few dull stretches. But it does have some entertaining characters, and goes in a few directions plot-wise that are enjoyable and even intense. It manages to balance the drama and comedy, and the arms dealing itself is interesting. Enough so to warrant seeing once.

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