Directed by Todd Phillips
Starring Jonah Hill, Miles Teller, Bradley Cooper
Released on 26th August 2016
The posters are already up, a fortnight before War Dogs opens. “Based on a true story,” they proclaim, along with “jaw-dropping” as their solitary, and rather generic, quote. You can take that however you like. They also make the film look like a riotous comedy with a modern war background. And that’s over-simplifying things.
It’s a comedy all right, but as cynical as they come, inspired by the real story of two friends in their early 20s. Efraim (Jonah Hill) fancies himself as something of an entrepreneur, while David (Miles Teller) is just about surviving as a mobile masseur – and now he has a pregnant girlfriend to think about as well. The two re-kindle their childhood friendship, but this time as business partners in Efraim’s latest venture, selling military supplies to the US government by exploiting its procurement system. And they’re soon earning seriously big bucks. Until they link up with Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper), who is far more experienced at the game …….
Efraim describes what he does as “picking up the crumbs” – trawling the government’s website, ignoring the big contracts that everybody wants to bid for and going for the small ones. Put together, they represent large amounts of money and the pair are soon raking it in. The American dream has gone sour again: greed gets the upper hand and the desire to make even more money becomes all-consuming. Especially for Efraim, who becomes so over-confident that he neglects one small detail in a million dollar deal. The result is one unhappy supplier who gets his revenge by tugging on the end of their metaphorical piece of knitting and unravelling everything at breakneck speed.
The film is divided up into chapters, each one starting with a forthcoming line of dialogue. “If I’d wanted you dead, you’d already be dead.” “This isn’t crumbs, this is the whole f*cking pie!” You get the picture. It also has David as a narrator, with the picture freezing while he does the explaining: it certainly helps move the story along and, as he’s the more sympathetic of the pair, he’s a more convincing and credible guide to goings-on. Although, if Efraim had been narrating, we’d have had a very different proposition. Something even more cynical – and perhaps meatier.
As it stands, it’s cynical enough, both in its humour, what it shows you about the system in the States and human nature in general. Everybody is out for what they can get, regardless of the cost – and that isn’t necessarily financial. The setting is the Afghanistan conflict, although the possibilities of anybody being killed or even injured seem remote – because this is all about the economics of war, trying to make as much money as quickly as possible and exploiting the loopholes in the government system. Not so much the American dream as the American nightmare.
It paints a crazy picture of the US involvement in Afghanistan and war in general, following in the footsteps of the likes of M*A*S*H and Catch 22. But it doesn’t have the savage bite of either of them, nor does it prick your conscience about the morality of what’s on screen. Instead, it nibbles at the subject, which certainly makes for an entertaining watch, but also the unavoidable sense that there’s a much meatier film to be made and you’ve just had the side salad.
If the film has a moral, it’s a dubious one: greed and over-confidence mean carelessness and getting caught. Which is, of course, what happens to the two unlikely arms dealers. Like I said, it’s cynical – and it’s also highly entertaining. Jonah Hill’s Efraim is especially good, unpleasant and funny all at the same time. But if director Todd Phillips was trying to make a 21st century Catch 22, then his ammunition is a touch out of date.
War Dogs is released in cinemas on Friday, 26 August and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 25 August.