Starring: Jonah Hill, Miles Teller, Ana de Armas
Directed by: Todd Phillips (“The Big Short”)
Written by: Stephen Chin (“Another Day in Paradise”), Todd Phillips (“The Big Short”), Jason Smilovic (“Lucky Number Slevin”)
If, upon watching the driving, energetic, rat-a-tat-tat trailer for Todd Phillips’s “War Dogs,” you found yourself thinking, “Huh — looks kinda like “The Big Short, Jr.,” rest assured: You were neither (1) alone nor (2) wrong in that assessment.
Just as you wouldn’t (necessarily) have been alone or wrong had you drawn a line of comparison/inspiration/theoretical parentage between “The Big Short” — last year’s Oscar quintuple-nominee and Best Adapted Screenplay winner — and 2013’s Oscar quintuple-nominee “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Or between “Wolf” and “Goodfellas,” for that matter. (Or “Casino” and “Goodfellas.” Or “Blow” and “Goodfellas.” Or “Boogie Nights” and “Goodfellas.” Or 2009 internet-porn origin story “Middle Men” and “Goodfellas.” And on and on.)
The point: If “War Dogs” is “The Big Short, Jr.,” and “The Big Short” is “The Wolf of Wall Street, Jr.,” does that mean, by the transitive property or some-such, that “Dogs” is “The Wolf of Wall Street, Jr.-Jr.?”
Or, to a lesser extent, “Goodfellas Jr.-Jr.-Jr.?”
More to the point: Yes, kind of.
Even more to the point: That’s not altogether a bad thing.
Based on a jaw-dropping, eminently Google-able true story, “War Dogs” follows David Packouz (Teller), a restless Miami Beach masseur who reconnects with high school best friend/stoner pal (and small-time weapons dealer) Efraim Diveroli (Hill) and is summarily drawn in, at the ground-floor level, to the latter’s nascent get-absurdly-rich-reasonably-quickly venture: Capitalize on an early-2000s, post-Halliburton-scandal “trustbusting” atmosphere — in which federal arms contracts were suddenly opened up via online marketplace to virtually anyone who could fill the orders — by becoming go-between munitions suppliers to the United States government at the ripe old ages of 19 and 23. As Hill/Diveroli puts it: “This is the job. To do business with the people and places the U.S. government can’t do business with directly. It’s as simple as that.”
And, for a while, it is. Of course, what seems simple at first becomes less and less so (I mean, come on: Not to belabor this, but … you’ve seen “Goodfellas,” right?), stakes and price tags spiral upward, allegiances are tested and strained, and our dude-bro DoD diplomats find themselves in well over their heads.
The story is a dilly, and Phillips (who gave us the “Hangover” franchise, “Old School,” and “Road Trip”) handles it well. The presentation is largely slick, snappy, fun — the opening lags a bit, as it calls inevitably to mind other (aforementioned) films that are slicker and snappier — but once the yarn gets to unspooling in earnest, we clip along at a sprightly pace that both ramps up and relieves tension in appropriate and pleasing measures. The later portions of “War Dogs” hold a number of shocks, dumbfoundings, and flabbergasts, and Phillips sticks these critical landings admirably. (One is tempted to wonder — though the timelines probably don’t work out — whether seeing “Anchorman” and “Step Brothers’s” Adam McKay broaden his directorial purview and subsequently score with “The Big Short” made Phillips say, “I can do that.” Whatever the reason, it’s a welcome and ably-turned new leaf.)
The cast is watertight, as well. Hill, as Diveroli, cooks: He’s a hoot, dripping with charismatic, sleazy bravado and frequently emitting a curious (but effective and trademark-ish) high-pitched laugh, like air escaping a balloon, or a baked-out-of-his-mind comic book villain. Teller, tasked with the straight-man burden, is wholly believable, casually-but-adeptly comedic, and elicits much more sympathy than one would expect, for a character who says “bro” as much as he’s asked to. Ana de Armas is solid, Kevin Pollack charming, Bradley Cooper properly unsettling in a minimalist but intriguing cameo.
“War Dogs” will remind you strongly of films you’ve seen before — but they’re very good films, and there’s a strong enough combination of familiar structural/tonal elements, confidence in its own story and style, and harrowing ugly-truth-telling to keep things entertaining and eye-opening all the way through.