At one point in the movie War Dogs, manipulative sociopath Efraim Diveroli presents his naive business partner David Packouz with a gift.
It is a sequence that is as illustrative of War Dogs as it is key for Efraim. The gift in question is a golden hand grenade, a gesture of tremendous subtlety on the part of the film and its secondary lead. See, Efraim and David are self-described gun runners. More than that, they are ostentatious over-the-top gun runners with no sense of tact and the bare minimum of business sense. What better way for Efraim to convey this to David (and for the film to convey it to the audience) than through the gift of a gold-plated hand grenade.
However, the kicker comes in the inscription that Efraim has engraved on the bottom of the ridiculous gift. “The world is yours,” the grenade seems to promise its owner. It is, of course, a line from Scarface. It is, in fact, a line from both versions of Scarface. It is the bitterly ironic sentiment that closes out the film, an encapsulation of the greed and hubris that led the two gangster protagonists their downfall. Conveyed through advertising, it was also a stinging commentary on the American Dream. It was the height of irony, a cynical sting at the end of a moral fable.
There is a sense that Efraim does not necessarily understand irony. Having watched War Dogs, it is not entirely clear that the film does either.
War Dogs marks something of a point of transition for director Todd Phillips. The posters for War Dogs treat the director almost as an auteur, teasing audiences with a new film from “the director of The Hangover trilogy.” It is a very strange affectation, one that evokes classics of cinema; or even true classics mixed with duds. “The Three Colours trilogy”, maybe. “The Godfather trilogy” is the example that perhaps most readily springs to mind. “The Dark Knight trilogy”, if you want to get modern.
Although comedy trilogies do exist, they are rarely identified as such. Edgar Wright’s “Cornetto Trilogy” itself seems like a parody of that level of pretension, constructed an elaborate trilogy of British comedies that are tied together through the narrative device of having a character eat a particular brand of ice cream. Describing Todd Phillips as “the director of The Hangover trilogy” is an interesting affectation, as if the director aspires to be described as “the Coppola of Comedy.” It might work if there were an element of irony.
Watching War Dogs, it seems increasingly likely that the descriptor is entirely earnest. War Dogs is loosely based on a true story about two young men who staged an elaborate con on the United States government involving illegal Chinese ammunition, dealers on the terrorist watch list, and numerous other examples of criminal activity. Efraim Diveroli and David Packouz made millions of dollars in an industry that they did not entirely understand, playing against opponents both more experienced and better resourced.
As such, it is a story that demands a certain level of irony. This is a film about war profiteering, but which is structured as a sly commentary on the American Dream. Diveroli and Packouz are unchecked capitalism run wild, two young men willing to do whatever it takes to get rich, no matter how much suffering unfolds as a result of their actions. It is absurd to think that at least a reasonable amount of this material actually happened, even if War Dogs does tweak its story for the sake of narrative convenience. This should be biting satire and brutal black comedy.
The obvious point of inspiration here is Martin Scorsese. The basic premise of War Dogs calls for an eviscerating high-speed anti-capitalist absurdist approach in the style of Wolf of Wall Street. This is the story of two guys who wanted more, and got involved in business for which their only qualification was a complete lack of moral scruples. However, Phillips cannot match the sheer narrative velocity and energy of Wolf of Wall Street. Instead, Phillips tries to pitch War Dogs as “Goodfellas for the Iraq War.”
If Phillips’ credit as “director of the Hangover trilogy” evokes Francis Ford Coppola, then Martin Scorsese should be next on the list of directors to homage. Indeed, there are a number of moments in War Dogs that feel like they might have been lifted from Wolf of Wall Street or Goodfellas. When a new recruits asks what the company acronym “A.E.Y. Int.” is supposed to “stand for”, Efrain tellingly replies, “You mean morally?” After a comedy schtick sequence he clarifies, “A.E.Y. doesn’t stand for anything!”
Phillips emulates the trappings of Scorsese. There are some great songs on the soundtrack, the vast majority drawn from the seventies. There is an opening in media res, before the film jumps back to offer an account of the protagonist’s life that is narrated with some wry levity. There are unnecessary title cards, as if trying to give the film a sense of unearned importance.However, the problem is not what Phillips takes from Scorsese. The problem is what Phillips misses about Scorsese’s work. War Dogs is entirely lacking any appreciation of irony.
War Dogs is not a subtle film. This is perhaps most obvious in the movie’s soundtrack. Efraim and Dave fly off to Jordan to the sound of Iggy Pop’s The Passenger, because that sounds like a tourist song. Efraim visits Albania and gets a slow-mo sequence set to Wish You Were Here. It sounds almost ironic, given that Dave is not especially fond of Albania. However, the sequence soon cuts to Efraim’s maniacal coke-up wide-ass grin; Efraim clearly is having a great time. When the duo are arrested, Behind Blue Eyes plays. No one knows what it’s like to be the bad men.
This need for simplicity bleeds over into the writing as well. War Dogs is a movie desperately searching for easy answers. It avoids the more complicated morality of what David and Efraim are doing, and insists on painting its protagonist as sympathetic. The morality driving War Dogs is quite simple, its take on the core premise quite black-and-white. David is presented as a well-meaning and naive young man who is manipulated by his vicious con man high school friend into becoming an international gun runner, but eventually sees the error of his ways.
David is portrayed as well-intentioned. David is the voice of reason. David is the character with aspirations, desperately wanted to get out of his mundane and humiliating day-to-day existence. All of David’s spectacularly ill-judged choices can be traced back to a desire to provide for his girlfriend and their child. David inevitably learns all sorts of important lessons from his experience, most notably that he should not lie to his family and that they do not need absurd materialist trappings to be happy. War Dogs seems rather insistent that David is a good guy.
In contrast, Efraim is portrayed as a monster. He is a coked-up prostitute-visiting fiend with a laugh that sounds like a demented soulless hyena and the complete inability to do the right thing even in situations where it would be advantageous for him. Efraim is pure unrestrained id. He is a force of nature. Every bad decision that the characters make can be traced back to Efraim. While David must inevitably learn his lesson, Efraim must inevitably collapse under the weight of his sins. There is no room for nuance in all this. No space for irony.
To be fair to Phillips, there are moments when this approach works quite well. There are moments when War Dogs works precisely because it is so earnest and sincere in its world view. In many respects, War Dogs feels like a companion piece to Pain and Gain, another oddity that found a director most associated with popcorn fare wrestling with weightier themes about American identity. However, it is several cuts below the work of other comedy directors making such transitions with films like Recount, Game Changer or The Big Short.
Still, individual images linger. There is a nice shot of Efraim and David smoking pot before their interview with government officials about their contract tender. Sitting in a red sports car, the two puff on the cigarette in slow motion. The clincher? The reflection of the American flag on the perfectly waxed hood of the car. It is a sequence that could not possibly work in a more ironic or self-aware film, but it lands surprisingly well in the middle of War Dogs. it feels almost like the perfect encapsulation of what Phillips is trying to say, as absurd as that might be.
Similarly, there are a number of effective transitions and compositions. At one point, there is a very nice shot of black birds resting on a building in Albania, startled by the sound of gunfire. Phillips mutes the soundtrack, which proves to be a very effective choice. Given the subject matter of the film and the cliché of “birds scattered by gunfire”, the audience is able to piece together what is happening quite well. Of course, that very effective shot then segues into the aforementioned slow-mo sequence set to Wish You Were Here.
Jonah Hill is the best part of War Dogs. Efraim Diveroli is an absolutely fascinating creation, a completely shameless self-centred moron with absolutely no filter and no common sense. Hill demonstrates his versatility as a performer, casting Diveroli as a larger-than-life figure. Everything about Efraim feels like a performance, right down to the unsettling cackle that sometimes emerges from the guy’s mouth. Of course, War Dogs somewhat undercuts both the character and the performance by pausing towards the end so David can actually explain this to the audience.
In many ways, it feels like War Dogs has picked the wrong protagonist. David is generic and boring, a collection of clichés designed to make the audience feel comfortable with what they are watching. In contrast, Efraim is brash and loud, completely lacking in subtlety and self-awareness. War Dogs lacks even the self-awareness to realise that is much closer to Efraim than to David.