Review: Firing blanks, 'War Dogs' can't become the Gulf of Wall Street it wants to be

Starring Jonah Hill and Miles Teller, this story of two stoners-turned-arms dealers is a mess of morals and ammunition

War Dogs

Miles Teller and Jonah Hill in the true story of two Petagon bottom-feeders, 'War Dogs' [Warner Bros.]

War Dogs is a film that constantly wants you to look the other way. Directed by Todd Philips, an Oscar-nominated writer better known for The Hangover trilogy, the film presents itself as an amorality tale, introducing new chapters with ominous lines like “If I wanted you dead, you’d already be dead,” before dropping those words like bombs from a B-52 in the middle of the scene that follows. It’s a pointless narrative device, reminding you to always be looking out for who’s going to say it and when, rather than paying attention to a film about two broke Miami bros scoring deals worth hundreds of millions of dollars. War Dogs doesn’t want you to look too closely at anything or anyone, because it really can’t decide who’s in the right or who’s in the wrong, settling on an indecisive but energetic No-Man’s-Land littered with cocaine, guns, leisure wear, and ‘Your Mom’ jokes.

Ostensibly, you’re supposed to be rooting for Miles Teller’s David Packouz, a masseur whose investment in high thread count bedsheets didn’t count on the managers of Florida’s retirement homes not wanting to drape “lizards in cashmere.” His life savings gone and with a baby on the way, David stumbles into partnership with a former school friend, Efraim Diveroli, a bottom-feeding arms dealer with a laugh that sounds like an atonal fart. That David repeatedly proves himself more than capable at scouring the Pentagon’s website for small deals to transport weapons from various look-the-other-way origins to the dusty theatre of Bush/Cheney’s ill-advised War on Terror while refusing to consider a more honest living is just another another way War Dogs wants you to look.

That the real Packouz acted as a consultant – complete with cameo – on the movie might do something to explain it, but the film never really buys into the pull the wealth must have had over a burgeoning hustler like David. With a support structure around him, he’s buoyed up by his bank balance and buddies at the dinner table, becoming a shining example of the benefits of operating between the lines while Efraim’s snorting them. But David never even drifts close to the beyond-redemption currents the film wants you to think are moving things around. Instead, Packouz is anchored to his moral compass and fiancée Iz. Played by Ana da Armas, she is the film’s worst character, a dripping holier-than-thou tap with less screen presence than a stop sign, only ever pointing in one direction and making David’s internal conflict an even more bland story to swallow.

It's not Teller's fault; before he decided the career path to follow was the one worn by Shia LaBeouf, the 29-year-old actor put in solid and overshadowed turns in Whiplash and Rabbit Hole. But his character here, a Milquetoast for the low-carb protein-shake generation, offers nothing to sink his teeth into.

At least Jonah Hill's role brings something to the table. As a character actor who excels in playing larger-than-life douchebags with just enough charm to make them likeable, his Diveroli is at least dangerous. A chameleon and manipulator, his jealousies and insecurities bubble to the surface is a Jacuzzi of toxic masculinity so profound it might as well be the Fukushima nuclear plant – with an emphasis on the ‘Fuk’ and the ‘u’. Just why David continues to stand by Efraim when everyone, even Efraim, consistently reminds him that his business partner is a cluster bomb waiting to go off is another plot hole the film dazzles you with montages and editing tricks to ignore.

War might be hell, but greed is good in War Dogs [Warner Bros]

Add to that pile the cost of war. Movies about the seductive power of wealth are 10-a-penny at this stage, tapering their wild and nouveau-riche excesses with down-at-their-heel and out-of-luck characters reminding you that the books need to balance. War Dogs comes with the impossible-to-ignore fact that its heroes trade in death, arming soldiers and their allies with the tools of war that have led to the deaths of more than 1.3m people in the Middle East. Only at one point in the film is David confronted with that reality, encountering a dead body in a petrol station, namelessly surrounded by photos of family members. But quick, War Dog tells you, look the other way, there are jokes on the horizon instead.

There’s enough entertainment in the spectacle, but in case you ever had any doubts, Todd Philips is not Martin Scorsese. His characters don’t have the complexity to make their audacious greed interesting, and the look-the-other-way Uncle Sam who let them get rich off the price of war never has to pay for it either.

War Dogs, 15A, 114 minutes, Released: August 26th 

Verdict: ★★★☆☆ A shameless simplification of the military-industrial complex, War Dogs doesn’t offer any answers because it never really asks any questions