Todd Phillips is known for directing the acclaimed Hangover trilogy, and although he adds his comedic bromance flavourings again, he is now taking on much weightier material in crime-drama War Dogs. Loosely based on the book Arms and the Dudes by Guy Lawson, the plot follows two twenty-something friends who become international arms dealers working with the American government. David Packouz (Miles Teller) is struggling to make ends meet, working as a masseuse in Miami. At an old school mate’s funeral, he reunites with former high school best friend Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), who appears to be making a real go of his life having left town a few years earlier. Eager for the taste of success, he agrees to work for him, joining the firm to buy and sell guns and make a fortune.
Similar to James Franco’s cornrowed thug Alien in Spring Breakers, Efraim Diveroli is a maniacal materialistic Scarface fanatic, quoting lines as well as cutting them with his credit card. From the stylistic approach adopted by Phillips, it’s evident that he also has a penchant for gangster flicks, dropping in Scorseseisms throughout the film. There’s a patronising voiceover narration, excessive use of slow-mo and sheer glorification of criminal activity. There’s even a Las Vegas casino scene wedged into the narrative for good measure. The warped ‘American Dream’ story of greed and corruption feels unoriginal but is entertaining and engaging for the most part before running low on ammunition in the final third.
Moving from strength to strength and continuing a remarkable run of form, Jonah Hill is a ball of energy and charisma that bundles through the challenging material effortlessly. He strikes up the perfect balance between slick and sleazy as Diveroli, making us laugh with him one moment and loathe him the next. Miles Teller is also very impressive off the back of his Whiplash success. Packouz is the closest the film has to a moral compass, though it is admittedly wavering, and his guilty conscience alongside Diveroli’s ruthlessness makes for an interesting juxtaposition of character.
Todd Phillips escapes the fictional absurdity of his previous work to deliver a story that seems too crazy to be true. War Dogs glamourises the arms dealer profession and wears its striking influences as proudly as Diveroli dons his designer sunglasses. Teller and Hill form a compelling screen partnership and their stellar performances give a bite to match Phillips’ bark, significantly elevating the enjoyment of the piece in the process.