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25 Aug 2016

Loving Arms: 'War Dogs' Delivers Laughs and Satire With Its Real-Life Story

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Miles Teller and Jonah Hill in War Dogs. Miles Teller and Jonah Hill in War Dogs.

Director Todd Phillips, a man responsible for slob comedies like The Hangover and Old School, takes a more serious, satirical route with War Dogs. The results are mixed—but ultimately entertaining.

The film is based on an article in Rolling Stone that described real-life gun-runners and the way they bilked the government and screwed each other over. It plays out as a sort of Wolf of Wall Street with weapons and Albania instead of stocks and the financial district.

Contributing to the Wolf vibe is Jonah Hill as Efraim Diveroli, a diabolical, narcissistic weapons dealer who puts profit before morality and friendship. Even though Hill throws in an annoying laugh, the core of his performance is funny—and brutal when it needs to be. He continues to show he’s far more than a giggle-getter: He’s a real-deal actor.

Miles Teller plays his partner, David Packouz, a massage therapist who can’t keep his career in line and needs to straighten things out fast, especially because he has a kid on the way with his wife, Iz (Ana de Armas, far less scary here than she was while she tortured Keanu Reeves in Knock Knock).

The story focuses on a big deal the two try to broker involving millions of ammunition rounds in an Albanian warehouse. The U.S. government under Dick Cheney and George W. Bush basically put arms-trading deals out to anybody who dared to bid on them—and these guys dove in. They run into all kinds of trouble, some of it predictable. It’s startling that much of this actually happened; the film shows how utterly stupid and simplistic the whole system was. The predictably and willingness of these dopes to chase a profit at all costs led to a lot of carelessness.

Phillips, like Adam McKay before him with The Big Short, makes a strong and convincing transition into dramatic satire. Yes, the film has laughs, but by most standards, this is a drama, like a film that Martin Scorsese would try to tackle. Mind you, Phillips is no Scorsese, but he has made a good-looking movie containing strong, realistic performances. While he goes down some familiar story paths, he does so in a way that’s stylistically strong.

The film is at its best during a sequence in which Efraim and David must drive a small shipment of guns through the Triangle of Death and into the heart of Iraq. It’s during this stretch when the movie is funny, thrilling and even a little scary. The parts before and after are often riveting and engaging in other ways, but they aren’t as fast-paced or entertaining. This great sequence raises the level of the film a notch, even if it makes the rest of it look slightly inferior.

Hill put on a lot of weight for the role—so much so that it could make his fans a little anxious. He’s seesawing with his weight like two kids on the playground after three bowls of Apple Jacks chased with five cups of pure-cane sugar and a gallon of Coke. (I saw him on a recent interview show, and he’s looking much healthier again. Still, his adherence to the Robert De Niro/Christian Bale School of Body Acting must be taxing his ticker.)

Teller bounces back impressively after last year’s awful Fantastic Four. He’s also been tied into the abysmal Divergent franchise in these last few years. He’s been in some crap, but anybody denouncing this guy needs to look no further than Whiplash, The Spectacular Now and this film for examples of his talent.

War Dogs isn’t a great movie, but given how awful this summer has been, it’s actually one of the season’s better movies.

War Dogs is playing at theaters across the valley.

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