War Dogs (2016) R 1h 54m

War Dogs

A solid, fun movie made when Jonah Hill was fat, and Miles Teller was famous.

                I don’t like to spend time on YouTube, but sometimes I have something I should be doing, and I fall down a procrastination rabbit hole. One day, I had a suggested video called “Most Badass Moments in Movie History”. I clicked and was unimpressed. It was an assortment of “badass” moments for the kind of guy whose favorite movie is Scarface. In other words, a Bro. There was one scene from War Dogs that caught my attention though. Jonah Hill’s character Efraim tries to buy drugs, gets scammed, and then pulls an automatic weapon on the guys who scammed him. It’s not a great scene. Essentially, it’s a fantasy of a fat white guy scaring four black guys, the kind of thing a neck beard dreams about while sitting in his mom’s basement. There may be a connection because the director also made Joker, infamous for airing out similar violent fantasies of retribution. But, despite the lameness of the scene, I picked up on a Three Kings vibe in the movie. I loved that movie, and this one starred two actors who were great in other things, so I added it to my wish list. (Add me on IMDB if you want to see it).

                Things linger on my wish list for a long time, but suddenly War Dogs popped up on Netflix this week. So, I started watching over my morning coffee, planning to pause and finish in the evening. Instead, the movie was easily entertaining enough to suck me in. So that should stand as a positive review right away. This piece of entertainment does that basic job quite well, which isn’t as faint praise as it may sound. The actors are good, even though they are playing fundamentally unlikeable people. The constant use of the word “bro” is like a frat boy’s fingers on a chalkboard. Jonah Hill has a Zach Galifinakis-like energy throughout, which makes sense since Todd Phillips also directed the Hangover movies. It’s shocking how huge Hill was back then, bigger than he had been in Superbad by a long shot, and this movie was only four years ago. Since then, he has transformed so much that he reputedly lost the role of Penguin in The Batman, probably a good trade.

                Kevin Pollak has a supporting role as a Jewish drycleaner, which considering his part on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is apparently his own ecological niche as an actor. That brings up an ugly point. The role of the characters’ Judaism strikes me as problematic. The film is based on a true story, so the writer has that cover, but there is a lot of attention called to it. Considering the overall criticism of the role of money in war and the shadowy operations of people who “never see a battlefield”, I don’t think you’d have to go far to link this portrayal of Jewish people to an idea of them as profiteers. The movie targets left-leaning audiences, so the anti-Semitism may have been intentional. There certainly could have been a version of this story where the characters were just assholes, I see the hand of a writer trying hard to make the point that these are Jewish assholes. It’s ugly.

                But Ana de Armas is not. She made a big impression on me in Knives Out, and she does it again here despite not having a hugely demanding role as one asshole’s wife. I was going to see the next Bond movie anyway, but she is yet another argument for it. Which brings me to her husband, played my Miles Teller. He’s a good actor, he turns in a solid performance, but there isn’t much in this role. What happened to that guy? For a fleeting moment, he was Hollywood’s hottest commodity when he dazzled in Whiplash, but that was seven years ago now. Since then, he hasn’t done much at all aside from playing Richard Reed in the Fantastic Four flop. Basically, it seems like you really should avoid off brand Marvel movies. They killed Andrew Garfield too. The proper Marvel movies nail casting over and over again, with the possible exception of Brie Larson. She seems to barely conceal how much she hates the gig.

                Overall, War Dogs tries to tell a story of a wild west period in defense procurement during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. When things fall apart, the FBI calls this company “a case study in all that is wrong with the government procurement process”. That is exactly what this film is. The writers use a Goodfellas structure, voiceover, meteoric success, and location shoots to call into focus what a mess this is. The feel is just like a mob movie. How are these guys making so much money? How can our society allow this to happen? And like Goodfellas, Blow, Narcos etc. we know these characters are in for a fall. We know they are bad people because they say “bro” and do cocaine (which reminds me to ask, is that always a sign that a character is a bad person, it seems to me that it is. Why is that drug singled out for such characterization?). One constantly asks why they would be given this much of a role in the procurement process. But this is paradoxical, one moment Jonah Hill’s character seems like a prodigy with a huge knowledge of the whole business, but the next he is so stupid he doesn’t know what IBM stands for.

                Some of the best moments of the movie are definitely fictional. On a gun run from Jordan to Iraq (which vividly reminded me of my time in Jordan) the characters are saved from a Fallujah militia by the timely intervention of an attack helicopter. That part was fun, but never happened. My take on this movie? Enjoy it like that, as fiction, as an engrossing tale of some louche characters getting rich and then getting their just deserts. Enjoy it the way you would Goodfellas, as part morality play and part power fantasy. It succeeds in that role.

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