All words: Alan Pyke
Today, August 19, is my birthday. It is also Bill Clinton’s birthday. The coincidence has always made me ambivalent.
But now, finally, I don’t have to worry if I might be the worst thing America’s brought into the world on the 19th of August. Because War Dogs goes into wide release today. Thanks to this bland, stale, self-satisfied wraith of a movie, I’m at worst a top-two national blemish on this arbitrary block of time in our planet’s adventure through the solar system.
The problem with War Dogs isn’t that it gropes for cheap laughs, though characters in the true life gun-running tale from the mid-2000s do toss “retard” around with era-appropriate abandon.
Nor is it the hacky, cliché filmmaking that pervades the runtime, though director Todd Phillips does kick things off with a needle-scratch “that’s me, you might wonder how I got into this mess” flourish that’s so tired that the twitter jokes about it are yawning. He then spends two more hours jocking Marty Scorsese’s filmmaking style, despite obviously lacking the creativity or eye required to pull it off.
It’s not even the regurgitated, winking sloth of the soundtrack, though “Funk #49” plays under the first joint-smoking scene, “Jump Around” scores a party scene, and “Fortunate Son” kicks on when American soldiers show up just in time to rescue the main characters.
The real problem with War Dogs is its determination to hit the middlebrow bulls eye will probably sell just enough tickets to ensure this keeps happening to us. As long as it recoups its $45 million plus marketing, no-one involved in making this boring, predictable, recycled turd of a summer movie experience will ever wonder if it might be worth coming up with interesting ways to tell interesting stories. They’ll instead learn that it’s still fine to shit out on-the-nose dreck for another decade between comic-book movies.
Which is a damnable shame, because true stories as fascinating and crooked and ugly and funny as this are too rare to let Hollywood waste them.
Efraim Diveroli and David Packouz are real. The company the two high school dropout idiots used to land hundreds of millions of dollars in Pentagon contracts in the 2000s was real. The procurement systems that funneled taxpayer money to bring guns, bullets, and gas masks into Iraq and Afghanistan as the United States played IRL Risk in west Asia? Super duper real.
It’s easy to see why Phillips figured this was the right forum to dress up in Scorsese’s clothes. The grand, morally repugnant tale of fast wealth and opportunistic American bravado would feel like Wolf Of Wall Street Goes To Baghdad even if he hadn’t cast Jonah Hill as Diveroli. He and Packouz (Miles Teller) connive in office buildings, scream into phones, and spend their plunder on lavish homes and strong drugs.
But unlike the last time Hill trawled these narrative shores, none of War Dogs is any fun. Phillips drowns the tale in boring, workmanlike visual choices plucked from a CINE101 course. The editing rhythm is stolid, the cuts come at square angles, the camera addresses every scene head-on, and the script is stuffed with characters explaining things to the audience instead of showing us how their world is working. It’s drab, square stuff, the movie equivalent of one of the pre-programmed metronome beats on an old Casio keyboard.
There’s nothing wrong with playing this story for laughs. But it’s practically criminal that Phillips and co-writers Stephen Chin and Jason Smilovic fail to capture a single genuinely funny line or moment in the whole damn thing.
The closest they come is having a young man play an acoustic version of “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” for old folks at a rest home. There’s another 90 minutes of movie to sit through after that simple chuckle turns to sawdust in your throat.