MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Dark Comedy-Crime/ Stars: Jonah Hill, Miles Teller, Ana de Armas, Bradley Cooper, Kevin Pollak, Patrick St. Esprit, Shaun Toub, JB Blanc, Gabriel Spahiu, Barry Livingston, Eddie Jemison, David Packouz, Wallace Langham/Runtime: 114 minutes
I think it is safe to start this review of by saying that in the wake of his very first slice of cinematic pie in the form of Road Trip back in the long gone year of 2000, distinct film helmer Todd Phillips hasn’t just showcased an increased degree of maturity in the movies he has made, but also a firmer grasp and ability to express what he would like to personally express in his films. This therefore is why there are distinct differences that can be found in such films he has helmed as The Hangover movies from 2009, 2011, and 2013 respectively and slices of cinematic pie like Starsky and Hutch and Old School from 2004 and 2003 since a lot of the work done by Phillips has been able to mine comedy from locales that are more ominous and even quite unnerving at moments. Yet this is not a bad thing; rather this is just what it looks like dear reader when a film helmer is allowed to possess more in the way of creative control due to his successes making a studio a lot of movie and in the case of Phillips, it has emboldened him to make some distinctly different tonal choices as of late. It is this building up in Phillips’ career that was able to see him give us the 2016 slice of cinematic pie that is War Dogs. A slice of cinematic pie that, due to being in many respects Phillips’ take on gangster films with particular regard to both those done by Scorsese, but especially Scarface from 1983 was, at least until we got his and Joaquin Phoenix’s take on Joker back in 2019, his most ominous and easily his most dramatic slice of cinematic pie at that particular time to that point that whilst yes there is a fair degree of comedy present throughout this slice of cinematic pie’s 114 minute runtime it also is not exactly the main thing which propels the narrative forward in any way. As a result yes this is most definitely not the kind of work that the movie goer has come to expect from film helmer Todd Phillips given his work in the past, but at the same time this is also most definitely an incredibly well done slice of cinematic pie as well as a wonderful surprise for moviegoers to come out of that long gone time known as late summer 2016.
The plot is as follows: Inspired by a true story and adapted by a writing trio consisting of film helmer Phillips, Stephen Chin and Jason Smilovic, the slice of cinematic pie that is War Dogs takes us back to the long gone year of 2005 and regales us with the saga of a guy living in Miami by the name of David Packouz. Mr. Packouz we quickly learn is a guy in his 20s who is doing everything in his power to make the best life possible for himself and his incredibly loving and patient wife. Yet things soon take a turn for our intrepid hero when, at a friend’s funeral, he is reunited with an old friend from childhood by the name of Efraim Diveroli who wasn’t exactly seen by his mom as a suitable person to be friends with. We soon see that whilst things haven’t been easy for our hero, the same can’t be said for Efraim who has managed to figure life out due specifically to one thing that has helped him make quite a bit of money. That of course being that Efraim has been engaged in selling guns and bullets to no less an entity than the government of the United States. Yet while you might, quite rightly, assume that this career path would be one that only big time companies and/or individuals that’s not entirely accurate. You see our hero’s boyhood pal has uncovered that all contracts the military needs filled can be found online and has therefore decided to start taking on the tiny deals that most would just brush over and therefore make himself a fair amount of cash. Finding himself properly tempted by the possibility of making quite a bit of money in no time at all, we soon witness as our hero teams up with his old friend to create a company calling itself AEY Inc. Yet what may have started out as 2 old friends starting a business together soon turns into a path that is filled with peril, secrets, backstabbing, and some individuals who are just downright terrifying.
Now in giving us the saga of these 2 20-something year old “boy wonders”, this slice of cinematic pie manages to nonchalantly weave its way back and forth between what is true on a factional level and what is true on an emotional level, but film helmer Phillips and his writing team manage to use that creative advantage to construct for us a power rise narrative in the form of something resembling Casino or GoodFellas that is consistently riveting. To that end, not only does this slice of cinematic pie do a wonderful job at dealing with all of the complex exposition since audiences by and large don’t know that much about the world of military contractor, but it also makes what is at stake in this world quite clear without ever making the audience feel dumb in any manner. Along with that comes with the fact that you are left constantly curious as to just how in the world our boy “geniuses” are going to get the heck out of the sticky circumstances they consistently get themselves stuck in from having to drive ammo to Baghdad by way of Jordan or in trying to hide that ammo they are selling to the US originated in China. Yet no matter the solutions that they manage to come up with almost by the seat of their pants it seems, you can always count on them being quite ingenious, astonishing, and enjoyable to watch to boot.
Perhaps one of the more intriguing dilemmas this slice of cinematic pie is saddled with though is the fact that David and Efraim aren’t entirely the easiest guys in the world to root for. Heck this film’s very title is meant to be an insulting nickname given to people in their line of work. Therefore as a result, it most certainly is a huge plus to the overall film to get a pair of the finest younger actors operating as your lead guys in this and to that end this movie is aided immensely by a pair of brilliant lead performances. Indeed as David our defacto guide of sorts through this world Miles Teller is given the more intriguing part since he is supposed to be a human canvas for the moral core of the narrative that is swayed into this and then must fight to reclaim both himself and his values. Yet Teller does a fantastic job at giving this guy a wonderful sense of humanity whilst also making you really root for him to make good even after all the stupidity he finds himself embroiled throughout the film. On the other side of the coin however, we get the character of Efraim who is a complete and utter borderline psychotic manipulation machine (complete with an oddly perfect quirky laugh) and in that respect Jonah Hill is utterly fantastic as the guy who is responsible for taking both us and poor David further and further down this hellish road. Suffice it to say then that these 2 are the exact kind of actors this movie needed to get us through its narrative in regards to both the more potent and dramatic moments as well as the ones that are quirky yet true all the same and in that respect Teller and Hill do absolutely phenomenal work in this together.
Now much in the same manner that this slice of cinematic pie is seen as an iconic entry in film helmer Todd Phillips’ filmography due to being completely different in tone from everything he had done up to that point in time, I think it’s safe to say that the same can also be said that this slice of cinematic pie is also one of the most well-done from an aesthetic perspective. I mean this slice of cinematic pie is absolutely gorgeous to look at and I feel like again this can be attributed to Phillips’s years of experience behind the camera just as much as his inherent skill as a film helmer. Indeed Phillips may have first and foremost got an opportunity to show what he could do in regards to giving audiences landscapes that are absolutely beautiful with the work he did in the desert shots of the first Hangover back in ’09, but in this film not only do we get to go back to Vegas (and with Bradley Cooper no less), but we also get the excess of Miami with a side quest for a little bit to the Middle East and the results are incredible. In addition, since the art form of music is one that has been an integral part of virtually all of Phillips’ films, I think it is safe to say that by giving us his take on a Scorsese-type gangster film is able to permit this film’s soundtrack to be downright electric. A fact that is perhaps best evident due to the film having an engaging blend of songs from artists as varied as 50 Cent all the way to The Who that do a wonderful job of brilliantly lending weight to all the finest moments this film has to offer up for audiences.
All in all when placed right next to one another, the slices of cinematic pie that are War Dogs and Road Trip are a dynamic duo of films that honestly look like they could quite easily have been helmed by a pair of very distinct directors. Yet this is not exactly the worst thing in the world since if we start seeing more movies like the first one is the very distinct path that iconic film helmer Todd Phillips is planning on traversing (especially after 2019’s Joker), then hey the more the merrier! Not that Phillips’ movies before this were genuinely terrible because, unless they were titled Hangover 2 or 3, they really weren’t and I always enjoy putting them on whenever I am in need of a serious laughfest. Rather, it’s because the 2016 slice of cinematic pie that is War Dogs is both a fantastic character analysis to say nothing of a riveting story neatly tied together into both a truly compelling movie and a wonderful opportunity for a dynamic duo consisting of Jonah Hill and Miles Teller as well as a top-notch supporting cast to come together and give us a film that is truly enjoyable and then some in the best ways possible. On a scale of 1-5 I give War Dogs “2016” a solid 3.5 out of 5.