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Bro-ing to war - 'War Dogs'

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Film elevated by strong central performances

One of the most overused phrases in the world of movie marketing is 'Based on a true story.' Essentially, it gives filmmakers carte blanche to use as much or as little of a story's truth in the course of making their movie.

Some of these movies are more successful than others; ultimately, though, it's about constructing an entertaining narrative with the raw material of that 'true story.'

I'm not going to guess at how closely 'War Dogs' the latest from director Todd Phillips hews to the story that inspired it. True or not, however, it's a pretty engaging film, thanks in large part to some strong performances from the two actors at the movie's center.

David Packouz (Miles Teller, 'Get a Job') is a directionless young man drifting through his early 20s living in Miami. He's a massage therapist with a loving girlfriend named Iz (Ana de Armas, 'Knock Knock') and a going-nowhere business plan involving selling high-end sheets to nursing homes.

But it all changes when Efram Diveroli (Jonah Hill, 'Sausage Party') rolls back into town.

David and Efram were best friends in junior high, but they lost touch when Efram moved out west. He has returned to Miami to start his own business. Basically, Efram is an arms dealer, thanks to a little-known government program that opens up military bids to small businesses. Brash and coarse, Efram doesn't necessarily play well with others, but in David, he finally has a partner that he can trust.

The two start off as strictly small-timers, scooping up the crumbs left behind by the big military contractors. However, even small government money is significant; before long, the two are raking it in and living large. Sure, David's girlfriend has misgivings and that doesn't even take into account the stuff he doesn't tell her but the money is great.

As their reputation grows, the duo and their company AEY look to step up their game. The plan is to try and land a massive contract one of the biggest they're ever likely to see. Unfortunately, they just don't have the juice to make it happen. That is, until a chance meeting with a man named Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper, 'Joy'), a legendarily shady figure in the weapons game who needs intermediaries in order to sell to the U.S. government.

Of course, David soon learns that the people he's playing with are playing for keeps, leaving him with no idea who his friends really are or his enemies.

At first glance, 'War Dogs' doesn't seem like the typical dude-centric comedy fare that Phillips (who also co-wrote the script) usually delivers. War stories even heavily bro-ish ones aren't what spring to mind when thinking about the guy behind 'Old School' and the 'Hangover' trilogy. This movie isn't really funny in the same way; there are moments of humor and you can definitely feel the influence of Phillips here, but it wears its sense of chaos and the absurd much closer to the vest.

And yetit works.

It works because at his core, Phillips is a guy who makes films that are built around the relationships between men specifically, men suffering from some degree of arrested development. He certainly has that in David and Efram, two guys whose decision-making is easily clouded by impulsive desire. The war and the shadowy morality of arms dealing is merely the backdrop; the central lynchpin of the movie is the relationship between these two.

Sure, the narrative is a bit convoluted and the direction is fairly pedestrian in a lot of ways, but in the end, those issues are rendered relatively minor by the quality performances put forth by Teller and Hill.

Teller captures the basic good-guy nature of David, painting a picture of a dude so far over his head that he doesn't always know he's in over his head at all. He's at his best at his most easygoing; it's only when he's steered into histrionics that the portrayal falters. Hill, on the other hand, is basically playing the darkest version of the sociopathic numbers wonk that he's showed us in movies like 'Moneyball' and 'The Wolf of Wall Street' though Efram owes considerably more to the latter and it really works. The tics and quirks he affects including a weird laugh that grates and irritates occasionally make the whole thing feel like a bag of tricks performance, but for the most part, he's quite good.

(It should be noted that in no way do I buy these two dudes as being in their early twenties. Not even a little. A small thing, but worth mentioning.)

The rest of the cast is solid. Cooper is unsettlingly oily and affectless, while de Armas does fine work in the thankless girlfriend role. He's got the whole glowering without glowering thing down; she manages to be disapproving without ever coming off as shrewish. Also, Kevin Pollak has a couple of good scenes as a dry cleaner/silent AEY investor.

'War Dogs' struggles a bit with its identity, seemingly unsure whether it wants to be a comedy or a drama and thus winding up in a bit of a muddy middle probably the same muddy middle where we'd find the actual truth of this 'true story.' Still, the dynamic between Teller and Hill goes a long way toward making up for the film's issues.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Tuesday, 31 January 2017 19:40

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