Martin Scorsese’s 1990 gangster opus Goodfellas ushered in a modern cinematic genre tweak I’ll call the American Scoundrel Biopic. A true story of American Exceptionalism gone wrong, narrated in cheeky, self-congratulatory tones, cut through with flashy montages documenting quick rises in fortune and immense falls from grace set to a rock and roll soundtrack filled with familiar hits, it’s a form that Scorsese has revisited to more or less successful effect several times throughout his career. Others have jumped in as well, from Ted Demme’s Blow to Adam McCay’s The Big Short we’ve been treated to brisk, glib takes on what it means to job the system and pay the price—it’s a familiar enough form that we’ve even gotten comedic satires of it like McCay’s Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgundy. Director Todd Philips, best known for his Hangover comedies, offers up War Dogs as his ASB entry, and I’m glad to report it’s a very solid one, with strong central performances and the sadly ever-relevant issues of war profiteering and global malfeasance on its mind. The style may be as familiar as a favorite old pair of jeans, but Philips and his performers make you glad to slip into them one more time.
We are introduced (in montage, with voiceover, natch) to David, played affably by Miles Teller, a Jewish kid trying to make good in the world but not blessed with the greatest business sense—his plot to make millions by reselling high end bedsheets to retirement homes doesn’t have an interested market base to peddle to, and his personal massage services do little aside from goosing his desire for a successful materialistic life. News of his wife’s impending pregnancy only heightens this instinct, and fate steps in to deposit childhood friend and professional shoulder devil Efraim back into David’s world. Efraim, portrayed with gusto by the ever surprisingly charismatic Jonah Hill, has figured out how to weasel his way into the middle of arms deals and is looking for a partner. David is quickly drawn in by a few wins, and we’re off to the races. The exceedingly murky morality behind their chosen field of work—supplying guns and ammo to war zones in the Middle East—swirls around the proceedings with a sense of impending doom, as the pair’s brazen strategies are half thought out at best and their luck in evading violence or exposure as hucksters simply can’t last forever. It doesn’t in real life, and it certainly doesn’t in ASB films.
If all of this sounds familiar, well, much of it is, but Philips has a few tricks up his sleeve that insure War Dogs sits towards the top of the pile in this particular genre. First and foremost, the filmmaker’s comedic chops are on full display throughout the film, it’s a damn funny ride, moreso than any of its brethren that come to mind. Even though the story actually happened a decade back, its resonance is strong as the West continues to be embroiled in military actions across miserable deserts half a world away. In the tale of David and Ephraim, taken from a Rolling Stone article on their exploits, Philips has also found a razor sharp metaphor for US interventions abroad: Occasionally well meaning, often misguided and ultimately leaving blood on many sets of hands. Finally, he’s coaxed a career defining performance out of Hill, whose Ephriam is Zelig-like in his chameleonic charming of everyone in his life and Patrick Batemen-esque in his sociopathic reduction of said people to pawns being moved around on his personal chessboard. Teller’s David is a sympathetic straight man who the viewer rides shotgun with, but Ephriam is the cackling black hole we find ourselves sucked into whenever he’s on screen. War Dogs is a smart, funny story of greed and guns, delivered with all the trimmings of American Scoundrel Biopics.