Tell me, when you got the list of songs the production needed you to secure did you think you were being pranked? You had to chuckle a little at the script notes for such laughably boiler-plate musical cues like when the two leads arrive at an airport and the song playing is Iggy Pop’s “Passenger”, or when they smoke pot together for the first time to House of Pain’s 90s party anthem “Jump Around”. Or was it the scene when the US chopper arrives to CCR’s “Fortunate Son” that it finally dawned on you that this stale, retrograde and nuance-free film was actually for real?
War Dogs is so obvious, so painfully, slap-you-in-the-face-with-a-dick-obvious, that I almost wondered if maybe the filmmakers were aiming for some kind of brilliant new style – post-obvious? – that I just wasn’t getting. But then I remembered that the director and co-writer is Todd Phillips, and one of the executive producers is Brett Ratner: two filmmakers so irony-free they’d probably play Alanis’ song “Ironic” while explaining just how ironic they really are.
This “based on actual events” story of David Paikouz and Efraim Diveroli, two young and arrogant gun-running entrepreneurs profiting from George W. Bush’s Iraq/Afghanistan quagmire,gave great trailer. Unfortunately that’s where it blew its load. Either the filmmakers didn’t think the real story – based ona Rolling Stone article –was interesting enough, or they actually got high to “Jump Around” then wrote the script. That can be the only explanation for having a scene set in Las Vegas, where the characters arrive up an escalator in matching suits like Cruise and Hoffman in Rain Man to the Gram Parsons song “Ooh Las Vegas”. Only in the reefer-addled, dude-bro minds of the guy that made the Hangover trilogy, and the guy who lost his job directing the Oscars for joking “rehearsing is for fags!”, would this kind of tired and trite slop pass for trenchant narrative.
Miles Teller plays Paikouz, who is supposed to be the film’s conscience though he never once comes across as contrite. He is given a beautiful, big-eyed girlfriend who is expecting his child, so you know, he needs money, and that’s motivation enough to become a shady war-profiteer. And while I had little sympathy for Teller’s character, I felt bad for him, the actor, for having to recite cringe-inducing narration like, “It was surreal. Six months ago I was a massage therapist, now I’m driving guns through Iraq.” The only reason to see this film is for Jonah Hill’s performance. Those are twelve words I never in my life thought I’d say. Hill’s Diveroli is all sweaty, cokey, slime-ball. He channels Christopher Penn at his cuddly, unrepentant asshole best. Think Penn’s Nice Guy Eddie but in Lord of War, a film that looks like Casablanca compared to this flat, wannabe-Scorsese flick. By the time the FBI show up to arrest our leads to the opening lines of The Who’s “Behind Blue Eyes”; “Nobody knows what it’s like, to be a bad man…” I could have cued it up myself, because what other song would it be?
Watching War Dogs I couldn’t help but think about how much smarter and grown up it could have been if it was in the hands of a director like Adam McKay, a contemporary of Phillips’ who cut his teeth making silly comedies like Anchorman and Step Brothers and who recently won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for his sharp and caustic The Big Short. He might have dug a little deeper for some subtext, perhaps showing us just how barely-legal the U.S. military procurement process was under the Bush government, or delving beyond Diveroli’s one-dimensional sociopath to give us an actual person and not a just a funny fat guy. God knows McKay wouldn’t have stood for the sloppy, repetitive device of throwing up a title card at the beginning of a scene with some faux-pithy text – “These ain’t crumbs, this is the whole fucking pie” – only to have the character say that exact line mere minutes later. Don’t even get me started on the “hey, look at me! I’m a Scarface reference” Scarface references. Because, you know, they’re gangsters! You should have suggested using Mozart’s Requiem and maybe the filmmakers would have buried this film in an unmarked grave.
It’s too bad War Dogs wasn’t set during the OG Iraq war in 1991 under the OG George Bush, where some of the songs, set pieces and Tarantino trunk-shots (and use of the term OG) wouldn’t seem so antiquated and try-too-hardy. It was a simpler time, when Jock Jams compilation CD’s were played at high school bush parties, and not pot-fuelled brainstorming sessions for major motion pictures. A time when Guns N Roses were so drug-addled themselves that they might have granted Phillips permission to use “Paradise City” for the scene when Paikouz and Diveroli arrive in Las Vegas (because Vegas is like paradise you guys! Get it? GET IT?!), instead of refusing to bargain with him. So I guess this movie did at least one thing I couldn’t have predicted; it made me assume GNR has taste.
Cue “It’s the End of The World as We Know It.”