Jonah Hill (centre) and Miles Teller (left) in War Dogs
There are, broadly speaking, two kinds of bro movies. The first kind is best exemplified in Entourage: The Movie (and its predecessors, Entourage: The TV Show and Entourage: The Lost Parchment), where being a bro is seen as either the status quo or something to aspire to. Bro-ly pursuits are not only the goal, but understood to be everyone else’s goal, lest they out themselves as being something less than a true bro.
These films don’t necessarily cast a critical eye to partying, shooting guns, fighting lions, bedding babes, playing poker, stacking money and other such actions worthy of a Broseph Stalin — they revel in them, they celebrate them and they very much accept them as part and parcel of a life truly lived. This is fine, in theory. It doesn’t even have to result in a bad or hateful movie, as Richard Linklater showed earlier this year with Everybody Wants Some!!, though it usually does.
The second kind of movie is trickier to pull off. That second kind of movie accepts the existence of bros as a necessary evil of life. It depicts the things that happened when coddled (mostly) white knuckleheads come into too much money and too much power for their fragile egos to properly parse with glee, but doesn’t necessarily hold it up as lifestyle porn to be proud of. To put this in vaguely 2016 terms, the first kind of movie shows cigar-chewing, muscle-bound Internet playboy Dan Bilzerian shooting an AK-47 off a helicopter while a Playboy Playmate hangs off his beefy shoulder; the second kind of movie also takes the time to show the two heart attacks he had before the age of 30. (Perhaps not coincidentally, Bilzerian shows up here in a split-second cameo.)
Promotional material for War Dogs pushes incredibly hard to make it look like the first kind of movie. It stars a couple of guys who aren’t newcomers to the bro genre (though Jonah Hill was Oscar-nominated for the mack daddy of all bro movies, Scorsese’s incredible The Wolf of Wall Street), is directed by Todd Phillips, the guy who made The Hangover (another mainstay of the bro landscape, though one that has bred some of its worst aspects), and apparently — based on the majority of the footage used in the trailer — centres around these two ding-dongs yelling at each other as they drive a cargo of illegal weapons across war-torn Iraq. As much as I’d like to tell you that War Dogs is a sophomoric melding of The Wages of Fear and Superbad, the truth is it’s 100 per cent the second type of movie.
David Packouz (Miles Teller) is only 22, but his professional life is a disaster. A college dropout, he half-assedly works as a massage therapist while dreaming of a lucrative career as a hustler of fine bedsheets to Miami-area retirement homes. When David reconnects with his old childhood best friend Efraim (Jonah Hill), he also discovers his infinitely more lucrative hustle: bidding on government armament contracts that big companies won’t bother with.
A sort of loophole in law allows any company to bid on these contracts and fulfill them, so they begin a bottom-feeding campaign that sees the duo slowly expand their profit margins over time thanks to investment from a local drycleaner (Kevin Pollak), which allows David to provide for his wife (Ana de Armas) and baby daughter. But the bigger their hustle gets, the bigger the risk — until they finally find themselves embroiled in a quasi-legal contract involving 40-year-old Albanian bullet stockpiles and an unfuckwithable arms-dealing vet (Bradley Cooper).
War Dogs is a period piece inasmuch as it’s set 10 years in the past, but the film’s not-so-distantly ripped-from-the-headlines story gives it an interesting twist. Fuck the pompadours and silliness of something like American Hustle; this is a movie where Scarface not only exists, but it’s a direct (and slightly tacky) inspiration to the blustery Efraim. Tanned, garrulous and afflicted with a horrible laboured giggle, Efraim is the consummate hustler, transforming into a pious and observant Jew to extricate money from the drycleaner but turning into a hard-assed military officer when trying to pry information from the military over the phone. He’s a perfect anti-hero straight out of a Scorsese film, basically, while David sits around like the underdog. In a film like this, the David character usually grows mad with power and tries to usurp his friend and mentor; instead, they maintain an uncomfortable alliance throughout.
If there’s anything to fault with War Dogs, it’s perhaps how slavishly it worships other films that came before it. It’s got a Goodfellas-type narration that weaves in and out; it uses blindingly obvious rock cues throughout (though, admittedly, not as obvious as those found in Suicide Squad, it still pumps “Fortunate Son” when the army shows up in the nick of time) and separates the film into “chapters” that are all titled by a quote that the viewer hasn’t heard yet. It’s a transparent attempt to shake up Phillips’ otherwise mundane visual style by borrowing from the masters, and it doesn’t particularly pay off.
War Dogs is based on a true story — though some liberties have obviously been taken — and perhaps the most surprising thing about the movie is how seriously it takes the subject at hand. It would have been easy for the film to fly off the handle and revel in the partying and excess, peppering the film with strobe lights and slow-motion footage of its leads throwing money at strippers to the soulful sounds of LMFAO. Instead, it has the studious devotion to its subject matter that an NPR piece about the topic might have (albeit with a significantly higher occurrence of the words “bro” and “fuck”). I have to say, War Dogs caught me off guard — it’s one of the year’s most pleasant surprises. ■
War Dogs opens in theatres on Friday, Aug. 19. Watch the trailer here: