Director : Todd Phillips
Starring: Jonah Hill, Miles Teller
Available on: Netflix
Right now it seems if you don’t have an opinion on Todd Phillips’ DC foray you’re either dead or Joaquin Phoenix. Having not seen Joker hasn’t stopped anyone from offering an opinion to date but journalistic integrity (and frugality and laziness) has driven me to explore Todd Phillips’ back catalogue available on Netflix before attending a picture theatre and subsequently diving head first into spurious debate about his latest effort.
With titles such as The Hangover (2009) and Due Date (2010), Phillips has previously shown that he can point a camera at Zach Galifianakis. But how would he fair with the Galifianakis-free, true(ish) story of two young arms dealers who hustle their way into a major contract with the Pentagon in War Dogs?
Taking a lesser-told story from a secretive industry can be both a blessing and a curse. If we take the main reason we watch films as being ‘catharsis’ which necessitates empathy with a protagonist and the second reason as being ‘to watch something we’ve never seen before’, an inherent problem with ambitious cinema can be that of how to tackle exposition.
In tackling this problem, Phillips tries to balance a sympathetic ‘everyman’ protagonist-come first person narrator with that character’s willingness to engage in nefarious acts. And thus the film effectively falls at the first hurdle. While we can all empathise with a young family’s desire for stability driving as it does to make money “between the lines”, moral lines can surely be drawn somewhere soon after the first few million dollars are achieved.
Yet the fact that our protagonist has an extreme change of heart late into the Third Act, having been previously complicit in all dubiousness and duplicity which amounted to the films tensions and therefore main entertainments left a sour taste.
While technique, including Fight Club inspired-text-labels for weapons costs sustains the early part and subsumes the necessary exposition, the film’s pace drags as it deals with manufactured moral dilemmas now minute in comparison with the margins in which its protagonists are continually working.
War Dogs is not without quality. Its cast is adept and its subject matter alone is almost enough to sustain it. However, its reliance on the (non-existent) ‘everyman’ qualities of its lead protagonist are essentially what diminish this quality.