Reviewer: Freda Cooper
Director: Todd Phillips
Stars: Jonah Hill, Miles Teller, Bradley Cooper
Released 26th August 2016
There’s a moment towards the end of ‘War Dogs’ when arms uber-dealer Bradley Cooper admits he has three daughters at home. And that he likes the arms dealing business because there’s no women. Which would explain why they’re noticeable by their absence in this based-on-a-true story modern war story – even at a time when we’ve had an all-female ‘Ghostbusters’ and there’s talk of ‘Ocean’s 8’ taking a similar approach. Here, all we have is Ana de Armas in a traditional wife and mother role and that’s about it. But this is satirical comedy on modern warfare, and one that makes an effort to be decidedly un-pc.
As comedies go, this is as cynical as they come. Twenty-something high school friends, Efraim (Jonah Hill) and David (Miles Teller) decide to go into business together. Efraim fancies himself as an entrepreneur, with David is just about surviving as a mobile masseur and now he has a pregnant girlfriend to think about. They become partners in Efraim’s latest venture, selling military supplies to the US government by exploiting its procurement system. It makes money – big money – but then they decide to link up with Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper), who is far more experienced in the game ……
To use Efraim’s own words, the business is all about “picking up the crumbs” – trawling the government’s website in search of the small contracts that nobody wants, bidding and winning them. Put a few of them together and they represent serious amounts of money and the pair start to rake it in. But their version of the American dream soon starts to sour, with greed taking over and the desire to make even more money taking priority over everything. Which, inevitably, is their downfall. In this case, it’s one unhappy supplier who decides to get his own back and brings the whole shaky edifice crashing down around their ears.
Each chapter of the film has a forthcoming line of dialogue as its title. “If I’d wanted you dead, you’d already be dead.” “This isn’t crumbs, this is the whole f**king pie!” and the like. It also has David as its narrator, with the picture freezing every time he fills in a bit of plot: it helps move the story along and, as he’s the more sympathetic of the two, he’s also a more credible guide to goings-on.
But it’s still cynical stuff, both in its humour and what it shows us about how the Americans supplied their troops at the time. It’s non-too-flattering about human nature either, with everybody out for what they can get, regardless of cost – financial and otherwise. It may be set during the Afghanistan conflict, but the possibilities of anybody being harmed look remote: this is all about the economics of war, trying to make fast, big bucks and exploiting even the tiniest loophole in the government system. In this case, it resembles something closer to a slice of Emmental cheese. Not quite the American dream, more the American nightmare.
It follows in the footsteps of ‘M*A*S*H’ and ‘Catch 22’ in its depiction of war, and especially the fighting in Afghanistan, as being nothing short of crazy and chaotic. But it doesn’t have the necessary savage bite, nor does it prick your conscience about the morality of what’s on screen. It just nibbles at the subject. So it’s an entertaining watch, but you’re left with the sense that there’s a much meatier film to be made on the subject and all you’ve had is the side salad.
‘War Dogs’ has a moral of sorts, but it’s more than a little dubious: greed and over-confidence mean carelessness and getting caught. And that, of course, is what happens to the two unlikely arms dealers. So it’s cynical, it’s amusing – with an especially good turn from Jonah Hill who is unpleasant and consistently funny throughout – but it never quite packs the weight of punch it aims for, either in terms of its humour or its satire.
If Todd Phillips was aiming to create a ‘Catch 22’ for the 21st century, he’s slightly wide of the mark.