Watching the news, reading the paper, listening to the heightened discourse of the last eight months, one might be forgiven for thinking that United States has become a parody of itself. Everyday television and social media is flooded with the latest comments from an almost inconceivable presidential nominee--who might best be described as a frankenstein composed of the most garish and rotten pieces of the American Dream--between reports of increasingly buffed-up and roided out police forces gunning down citizens in what amounts to, at its most generous, cold blood. As such, it might seem ill-advised for an already lackluster summer for cinema to round itself out with bro'd out comedy (perhaps?) about the glorious heights and despondent lows of the international arms trade.
Brought to you by Todd Phillips, director of The Hangover and its two mangled offspring, War Dogs stars Jonah Hill (in what could either be an ill-advised buy-in or half-hearted middle finger to his new status as a "serious" actor) and Miles Teller as two young gunrunning guns out to make a quick buck off the War on Terror. Based on a true story, the film tracks the pair from Teller's decision to join Hill (an already established member of the nouveau arms trade) to their inevitable, half-hearted downfall, wasting nearly every resource at its disposal. Containing zero bite, nary a smidge of charisma, and the most comically wrong-headed use of war movie staple "Fortunate Son," Phillips' picture is something of a wonder. The director and his actors seem totally unaware of what their picture is supposed to be (A satire? An object lession? Lord of War delivered via beer funnel?), and the resultant mish-mosh ultimately amounts to nothing. When the first trailers for the film premiered it seemed as though Phillips was looking to follow in the footsteps of Adam McKay, another filmmaker primarily known for his raunchy comedies, who parlayed his skills into the entertaining if overrated Big Short. If that's the case, the director failed. Where McKay's picture felt textured and lived in, War Dogs is fleeting, moving between three or four locations, countless useless interstitials, and a few clumsily delivered info-dumps that feel like they were pulled from a Wikipedia summary. Whether or not you understand finance, The Big Short convinced you of its authenticity. Phillips' movie, on the other hand, feels consistently phony, as though the three credited screenwriters were content to spend little more than an afternoon researching their topic, and fill the rest in when the time came.
It's a shame, really, because War Dogs had the potential to be something great: a look at the gaudy, tacky machinery of war-making, and the men and women who have set up camp beneath its gears. Midway through the picture, Teller and Hill visit a Vegas-based military-tech expo, which they compare to Comic-Con. What an opportunity for Phillips, to explore the macho, fetishization of government sanctioned bloodletting, to introduce his audience to the guys who can pitch you their improvements to a drone strike, and then invite you down to party. Murder Incorporated as a government funded bachelor party.
But Phillips does none of this. Instead he glides through the convention with a disinterested camera in what might be the least energetic montage in recent memory. Just this past June, Jenji Kohan and company took viewers into the dolled-up belly of the for-profit-prison industry with the fourth season of Orange is the New Black, demonstrating what happens when you put the best salesmen to work peddling misery. Apparently, War Dogs has no such ambition.
Make no mistake, the picture does make some attempts at satire or commentary, but each is half-hearted at best, and dishonest at worst. For the most part, these consist of moments where Hill offers women thousands of dollars in blood money for a hummer at a Miami club or the two leads high-fiving at the prospect of doing good in a bad business. Most irritating perhaps in the film's insistence on constantly referencing Brian De Palma's Scarface--from a massive poster depicting coked-out Pacino raining lead down from the stairwell of his mansion that hangs in Hill's office, to a gift Hill bestows upon Teller: a gold grenade inscribed with "The World is Yours." It's something of a masterwork of overstatement: one of the least subtle bits of irony from one of the least subtle films somehow blown up in scale for a coup de grace of on-the-nose foreshadowing. War Dogs, you see, wants its audience to recognize that these violent delights have violent ends--if by violent ends you mean a four year prison sentence for convictions on no less than seventy federal charges or a brief house arrest followed by a belated profit. And while lack of true retribution might have enhanced the bite of Martin Scorsese's brilliantly manic Wolf of Wall Street, Phillips' film has done nothing to earn the cynicism of its closing moments.
That's perhaps the greatest sin of War Dogs: a presumption of gravity, importance, and rigor; the seeming certainty that because its subject matter is weighty and bleak, the picture is automatically high-minded or subversive. April gave filmgoers a more pronounced big-budget example of this sort of delusion with Zack Snyder's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, a picture convinced that monologues about God, a few extra scowls, and a body count was the secret recipe to grown-up filmmaking. Like that debacle, War Dogs is also filled with big empty ideas, some of which might have composed the spine of a truly great film had they been developed in any way. Instead questions of patriotism, jingoism, national security, and war profiteering are used to help the film puff out its chest before it slinks back to the blander, more timid ideas with which it is actually smart enough to contend: why you shouldn't lie to your girlfriend about your sneaking Italian handguns over the Jordanian border, and why crime might not pay. The result is something conventional and shallow working overtime to convince an audience that it's subversive, and doing a very poor job. Hell, if he knew he didn't have the chops to actually poke holes in the way the Department of Defense hands out military contracts, Phillips could have at least been ballsy enough to lean into the reckless international dickery of his protagonists. If slightly less morally agreeable, an unironic comedy about hard-partying arms dealers might at least have felt like something one could sink their teeth into.
War Dogs, for all its crowing about driving through the "Triangle of Death" has opted for the safest route--an unconvincing shot down the middle that attempts to bounce between Hangover-esque antics and the gravitas that comes with international arms dealers disappearing people in Albania. It doesn't opt for black and white, or grey. Phillips feels safest delivering no color at all. What the audience is left with is a strangely weak condemnation of American Imperialism and the selfish attitudes of the high-rollers back home who use it to make a quick buck. It's hard to tell how Phillips sees his characters, but in the end that doesn't matter. There's nothing radical, funny, or probing in War Dogs just a magazine full of blanks, and a sense of general confusion over the difference between being morally corrupt and simply being a douchebag.