Skip to main content

Would you do that? Would you wrap a lizard in cashmere?

War Dogs
(2016)

(SPOILERS) The news that Martin Scorsese and Todd Phillips will be collaborating on a Joker origins movie (most likely not starring Leonardo DiCaprio, if he has any common sense) elicits a secondary reaction after the initial “Why ever would you want to make a Joker origins movie?”; What does Marty get out of the deal? He’s only producing, after all, so lending his name to a Todd Phillips written and co-directed effort will inevitably bear fruit tantamount to every other Todd Phillips comedy vehicle. Because War Dogs is essentially Phillips trying on a Scorsese overcoat for size, of a The Wolf on Wall Street variety, and delivering something closer to The Hangover.


When Marty makes something that approximates traditional Phillips fare, he delivers After Hours (possibly his best movie, but whisper it); he can’t help but class up material. Phillips can’t help but make his more cartoonish, broader, emptier, less demanding. Added to which, he veers towards the gleefully amoral anyway, so asking him to depict conscience-free capitalism run riot – “This isn’t about being pro-war. It’s about being pro-money” – is inevitably going to tend towards revelling in the misdeeds than proving cautionary (hence Miles Teller’s character being rewarded at the end with a suitcase full of cash; not something that actually happened).


So it is with War Dogs. It’s well made (Phillips is a pretty good comedy director, which isn’t damning with faint praise as most of them have little in the way of visual imagination), well cast, has fertile material in the account of twenty-something arms dealers Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) and David Packouz (Miles Teller) acting most unscrupulously in order to cater to a morally bankrupt industry (like attracts like), but it has no real impact. It doesn’t linger in the mind. As Guy Lawson, from whose 2011 Rolling Stone article this is adapted, opined, “you watch the end and you think it’s about these [two] guys. It’s not. It’s about the system”. But then, Phillips isn’t a deep guy.


One wonders whose decision it was to cut the third party to the events depicted, Alex Podrizki. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was Phillips, wary of comparisons to The Hangover that another central trio up to drug-fuelled no-good might encourage. Except that he’s inviting unflattering comparisons throughout. With Wolf by casting that movie’s Jonah Hill (very good nevertheless, particularly so when revealing Efraim’s sociopathic underbelly – the best businessmen often are so equipped, of course –  although the tendency to improv means the comedy throws the balance off at times). With other diluted War on Terror fare by making light of war zones (The Men Who Stare at Goats, Rock the Kasbah), which don’t, despite continually getting greenlit, equal box office. With any biopic that uses the voiceover to guide the viewer (see Scorsese again; when Teller explains “Ephraim never paid the box guy”, Ray Liotta swims into view). All washed down with a resolutely by-the-numbers soundtrack and tiresome pot-smoking montages.


Diveroli and Packouz (and Podrizki) took advantage of the requirement to put military contracts out to tender, post-scrutiny of Dick Cheney’s Haliburton spin-off KBR Inc eating up Iraq commissions – this operated more as window dressing than having any real effect on the majors, although this isn’t exactly an industry where one would be prone to protesting the cause of level playing fields in aid of enabling someone else to provide the instruments of death – and did indeed attempt to repackage banned Chinese munitions so as to sell them to the Afghan National Army (Chinese arms being embargoed post-Tiananmen Square).


Much of the movie’s more dramatic meat never actually happened, though – there was no dangerous drive through the Iraq “Triangle of Death” (the berretta deal was actually fouled), and it was Podrizki who ended up in Albania (but he wasn’t threatened at gunpoint). I’ve no issue with such material being invented, but the net result is Phillips shifting ever broader in tone and becoming less clear about what he’s actually saying. Throw in a rote subplot about Packouz’ girlfriend (it may be pretty much true, and Ana de Armas, shortly to be seen in Blade Runner 2049, is very winning, but that doesn’t make it any less inessential).


Adapting real events into black comedy can be tricky territory – look no further than Michael Bay with Pain & Gain to see how easy it is to screw up if you aren’t a funny guy. Phillips does know his funny, but this might have been funnier if it had been played straighter. And let its canvas billow a bit; Lawson has a point when he notes how fruitful it might have been to include the ineptitude of the Pentagon in all this. So I’m doubtful the Joker movie will find the right tone. Even less so that Phillips’ buddy Zach Galifianakis will play the lead character (he’s been there, done that). Mind you, I could see other buddy Bradley Cooper (who services a memorable cameo here) taking it on. If it wasn’t an origins tale.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Who’s got the Figgy Port?

Loki (2021) (SPOILERS) Can something be of redeemable value and shot through with woke? The two attributes certainly sound essentially irreconcilable, and Loki ’s tendencies – obviously, with new improved super-progressive Kevin Feige touting Disney’s uber-agenda – undeniably get in the way of what might have been a top-tier MCU entry from realising its full potential. But there are nevertheless solid bursts of highly engaging storytelling in the mix here, for all its less cherishable motivations. It also boasts an effortlessly commanding lead performance from Tom Hiddleston; that alone puts Loki head and shoulders above the other limited series thus far.

Here’s Bloody Justice for you.

Laughter in Paradise (1951) (SPOILERS) The beginning of a comedic run for director-producer Mario Zampa that spanned much of the 1950s, invariably aided by writers Michael Pertwee and Jack Davies (the latter went on to pen a spate of Norman Wisdom pictures including The Early Bird , and also comedy rally classic Monte Carlo or Bust! ) As usual with these Pertwee jaunts, Laughter in Paradise boasts a sparky premise – renowned practical joker bequeaths a fortune to four relatives, on condition they complete selected tasks that tickle him – and more than enough resultant situational humour.

Damn prairie dog burrow!

Tremors (1990) (SPOILERS) I suspect the reason the horror comedy – or the sci-fi comedy, come to that – doesn’t tend to be the slam-dunk goldmine many assume it must be, is because it takes a certain sensibility to do it right. Everyone isn’t a Joe Dante or Sam Raimi, or a John Landis, John Carpenter, Edgar Wright, Christopher Landon or even a Peter Jackson or Tim Burton, and the genre is littered with financial failures, some of them very good failures (and a good number of them from the names mentioned). Tremors was one, only proving a hit on video (hence six sequels at last count). It also failed to make Ron Underwood a directing legend.

Why don't we go on a picnic, up the hill?

Invaders from Mars (1986) (SPOILERS) One can wax thematical over the number of remakes of ’50s movies in the ’80s – and ’50s SF movies in particular – and of how they represent ever-present Cold War and nuclear threats, and steadily increasing social and familial paranoias and disintegrating values. Really, though, it’s mostly down to the nostalgia of filmmakers for whom such pictures were formative influences (and studios hoping to make an easy buck on a library property). Tobe Hooper’s version of nostalgia, however, is not so readily discernible as a John Carpenter or a David Cronenberg (not that Cronenberg could foment such vibes, any more than a trip to the dental hygienist). Because his directorial qualities are not so readily discernible. Tobe Hooper movies tend to be a bit shit. Which makes it unsurprising that Invaders from Mars is a bit shit.

I’m just glad Will Smith isn’t alive to see this.

The Tomorrow War (2021) (SPOILERS). Not so much tomorrow as yesterday. There’s a strong sense of déjà vu watching The Tomorrow War , so doggedly derivative is it of every time-travel/alien war/apocalyptic sci-fi movie of the past forty years. Not helping it stand out from the pack are doughy lead Chris Pratt, damned to look forever on the beefy side no matter how ripped he is and lacking the chops or gravitas for straight roles, and debut live-action director Chris McKay, who manages to deliver the goods in a serviceably anonymous fashion.

You nicknamed my daughter after the Loch Ness Monster?

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 (2012) The final finale of the Twilight saga, in which pig-boy Jacob tells Bella that, “No, it's not like that at all!” after she accuses him of being a paedo. But then she comes around to his viewpoint, doubtless displaying the kind of denial many parents did who let their kids spend time with Jimmy Savile or Gary Glitter during the ‘70s. It's lucky little Renesmee will be an adult by the age of seven, right? Right... Jacob even jokes that he should start calling Edward, “Dad”. And all the while they smile and smile.

I'm offering you a half-share in the universe.

Doctor Who Season 8 – Worst to Best I’m not sure I’d watched Season Eight chronologically before. While I have no hesitation in placing it as the second-best Pertwee season, based on its stories, I’m not sure it pays the same dividends watched as a unit. Simply, there’s too much Master, even as Roger Delgado never gets boring to watch and the stories themselves offer sufficient variety. His presence, turning up like clockwork, is inevitably repetitive. There were no particular revelatory reassessments resulting from this visit, then, except that, taken together – and as The Directing Route extra on the Blu-ray set highlights – it’s often much more visually inventive than what would follow. And that Michael Ferguson should probably have been on permanent attachment throughout this era.

I hate natural causes!

Body Bags (1993) (SPOILERS) I’m not surprised Showtime didn’t pick this up for an anthology series. Perhaps, if John Carpenter had made Coming Home in a Body Bag (the popular Nam movie series referenced in the same year’s True Romance ), we’d have something to talk about. Tho’ probably not, if Carpenter had retained his by this point firmly glued to his side DP Gary Kibbe, ensuring the proceedings are as flat, lifeless and unatmospheric as possible. Carpenter directed two of the segments here, Tobe Hooper the other one. It may sound absurd, given the quality of Hooper’s career, but by this point, even he was calling the shots better than Carpenter.

Call me crazy, but I don’t see America coming out in droves to see you puke.

The Hard Way (1991) (SPOILERS) It would probably be fair to suggest that Michael J Fox’s comic talents never quite earned the respect they deserved. Sure, he was the lead in two incredibly popular TV shows, but aside from one phenomenally successful movie franchise, he never quite made himself a home on the big screen. Part of that might have been down to attempts in the late ’80s to carve himself out a niche in more serious roles – Light of Day , Bright Lights, Big City , Casualties of War – roles none of his fanbase had any interest in seeing him essaying. Which makes the part of Nick Lang, in which Fox is at his comic best, rather perfect. After all, as his character, movie star Nick Lang, opines, after smashing in his TV with his People’s Choice Award – the kind of award reserved for those who fail to garner serious critical adoration – “ I’m the only one who wants me to grow up! ”

What's a movie star need a rocket for anyway?

The Rocketeer (1991) (SPOILERS) The Rocketeer has a fantastic poster. One of the best of the last thirty years (and while that may seem like faint praise, what with poster design being a dying art – I’m looking at you Marvel, or Amazon and the recent The Tomorrow War – it isn’t meant to be). The movie itself, however, tends towards stodge. Unremarkable pictures with a wide/cult fanbase, conditioned by childhood nostalgia, are ten-a-penny – Willow for example – and in this case, there was also a reasonably warm critical reception. But such an embrace can’t alter that Joe Johnston makes an inveterately bland, tepid movie director. His “feel” for period here got him The First Avenger: Captain America gig, a bland, tepid movie tending towards stodge. So at least he’s consistent.