Whatever you think about 2016‘s crop of mainstream American movies, maybe we can at least agree that it hasn’t exactly been a classic year for big-screen villainy. The otherwise spectacular Oscar Isaac looked awkward and out-of-sorts as the blue-faced supervillain at the heart of X-Men Apocalypse. Jessie Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor in Batman V Superman was more a caffeineated milquetoast than the bull-necked puppet master of the DC comics. As for the main threat in Suicide Squad… all we can say is, dancing and CGI smoke don’t an imposing villain make.
And yet, as the summer fades to autumn, along comes Jonah Hill to bring us one of the most mesmerising bad guys of the year so far. Not that, with his smiling blue eyes, high-pitched giggle and “Hey bro!” persona, he seems all that villainous at first. But then, that’s what makes him such a menace – his Miami gun runner is self-confident, fearless, charismatic, and worryingly lacking morals or anything resembling a conscience. In short, he’s the perfect businessman.
Based on a true story first explored in a Rolling Stone magazine article by Guy Lawson, War Dogs is told from the perspective of Miles Teller’s David Packouz, a rudderless, 20-something stoner who scrapes a living as a masseuse to the rich and seedy in the mid 2000s. The problem is, David’s girlfriend, Iz (Ana de Armas) has fallen pregnant, and a business venture involving cotton blankets and old people’s homes has failed to catch fire.
Maybe we can cut David a little slack, then, for falling under for the spell of a childhood friend, Efraim Diveroli (Hill), who specialises in buying and selling guns. Under the aegis of his company AEY Inc, Efraim initially makes a living by purchasing seized weapons from police auctions and selling them online. But with the second Iraq war and the invasion of Afghanistan in full swing, Efraim decides to target “the biggest gun nut of them all” (his words): the US government. His plan is to acquire guns from obscure corners of the globe and sell them to the US army in the Middle East; to major corporations, the sale of a few hundred thousand Berettas is hardly worth pursuing, but to Efraim, these crumbs from the table are potentially worth a fortune.
So it is that David becomes Efraim’s business partner, and a rollercoaster of success and mishaps begins to unfold. For most, director Todd Phillips is best known for such hits as Due Date and the Hangover trilogy – that is, comedies more about anarchy and gross-out gags than dramatic gravity. War Dogs marks a move away from that kind of filmmaking, though David and Efraim’s thing for grass and cocaine allows Phillips to revel in a few stoner comedy moments.
For the most part, however, War Dogs is a sober and disquieting perspective on 21st century capitalism: how governments and corporations can get rich from bloody conflicts overseas, and how individuals with an entrepreneurial spirit can make millions on the periphery – assuming they have the stomach, skill and sheer balls to get in on the act. In its storytelling, War Dogs takes its cue from such Scorsese films as Goodfellas, Casino and The Wolf Of Wall Street; Miles Teller narrates as David and Efraim pursue their own twisted vision of the American dream, inspired by their favourite movie, Scarface. The underlying joke is that, while Efraim may fantasise about being Tony Montana, he seems to forget the part of Montana’s story where he eventually succumbs to the fall-out from his greed and ambition.
Swept along by its jukebox soundtrack, War Dogs is solidly made and handsomely shot, while the performances from Teller and Hill are both excellent. Look out, too, for Bradley Cooper as a borderline terrifying man of mystery who seems surrounded by an almost tangible cloud of sleaze. Phillips’ direction is less indignant and charged with aggression than Scorsese’s, however, and it’s interesting to note that there are far fewer outright funny moments of black comedy in War Dogs than there were in The Wolf Of Wall Street. War Dogs has a similar style and shape to that Scorsese film, but nothing to match the shambling brilliance of Leonardo DiCaprio’s sozzled drive in a Lamborghini, say.
What War Dogs does offer is a glimpse into a world of modern warfare seldom scene in movies. Andrew Niccol’s great, underappreciated Lord Of War was also about gun-running, and in some respects it’s the better film. But War Dogs’ setting in the 2000s makes its subject matter seem even more disturbingly contemporary; that two stoners could have made multi-million dollar deals with the US military using nothing more than a mobile phone and a laptop is both hilarious and horrifying.
And then there’s Hill’s Efraim – a character who feels like a natural product of today’s winner-takes-all global economy. He’ll align himself with any religion, any country, any cause as long as it turns him a buck. He’s all charm on the surface, but ruthlessly driven by his own self-interest. In movies, as in life, the scariest villains are often the most mundane.
War Dogs is out in UK cinemas on the 19th August.