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.

Popular posts from this blog

If I do nothing else, I will convince them that Herbert Stempel knows what won the goddam Academy Award for Best goddam Picture of 1955. That’s what I’m going to accomplish.

Quiz Show (1994) (SPOILERS) Quiz Show perfectly encapsulates a certain brand of Best Picture nominee: the staid, respectable, diligent historical episode, a morality tale in response to which the Academy can nod their heads approvingly and discerningly, feeding as it does their own vainglorious self-image about how times and attitudes have changed, in part thanks to their own virtuousness. Robert Redford’s film about the 1950s Twenty-One quiz show scandals is immaculately made, boasts a notable cast and is guided by a strong screenplay from Paul Attanasio (who, on television, had just created the seminal Homicide: Life on the Streets ), but it lacks that something extra that pushes it into truly memorable territory.

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.

Piece by piece, the camel enters the couscous.

The Forgiven (2021) (SPOILERS) By this point, the differences between filmmaker John Michael McDonagh and his younger brother, filmmaker and playwright Martin McDonagh, are fairly clearly established. Both wear badges of irreverence and provocation in their writing, and a willingness to tackle – or take pot-shots – at bigger issues, ones that may find them dangling their toes in hot water. But Martin receives the lion’s share of the critical attention, while John is generally recognised as the slightly lesser light. Sure, some might mistake Seven Psychopaths for a John movie, and Calvary for a Martin one, but there’s a more flagrant sense of attention seeking in John’s work, and concomitantly less substance. The Forgiven is clearly aiming more in the expressly substantial vein of John’s earlier Calvary, but it ultimately bears the same kind of issues in delivery.

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the

I’m just the balloon man.

Copshop (2021) (SPOILERS) A consistent problem with Joe Carnahan’s oeuvre is that, no matter how confidently his movies begin, or how strong his premise, or how adept his direction or compelling the performances he extracts, he ends up blowing it. He blows it with Copshop , a ’70s-inspired variant on Assault on Precinct 13 that is pretty damn good during the first hour, before devolving into his standard mode of sado-nihilistic mayhem.

Say hello to the Scream Extractor.

Monsters, Inc. (2001) (SPOILERS) I was never the greatest fan of Monsters, Inc. , even before charges began to be levelled regarding its “true” subtext. I didn’t much care for the characters, and I particularly didn’t like the way Pixar’s directors injected their own parenting/ childhood nostalgia into their plots. Something that just seems to go on with their fare ad infinitum. Which means the Pixars I preferred tended to be the Brad Bird ones. You know, the alleged objectivist. Now, though, we learn Pixar has always been about the adrenochrome, so there’s no going back…

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

When we have been subtle, then can I kill him?

The Avengers 6.16. Legacy of Death There’s scarcely any crediting the Terry Nation of Noon-Doomsday as the same Terry Nation that wrote this, let alone the Terry Nation churning out a no-frills Dalek story a season for the latter stages of the Jon Pertwee era. Of course, Nation had started out as a comedy writer (for Hancock), and it may be that the kick Brian Clemens gave him up the pants in reaction to the quality of Noon-Doomsday loosened a whole load of gags. Admittedly, a lot of them are well worn, but they come so thick and fast in Legacy of Death , accompanied by an assuredly giddy pace from director Don Chaffey (of Ray Harryhausen’s Jason and the Argonauts ) and a fine ensemble of supporting players, that it would be churlish to complain.

Tippy-toe! Tippy-toe!

Seinfeld 2.7: The Phone Message The Premise George and Jerry both have dates on the same night. Neither goes quite as planned, and in George’s case it results in him leaving an abusive message on his girlfriend’s answerphone. The only solution is to steal the tape before she plays it. Observational Further evidence of the gaping chasm between George and Jerry’s approaches to the world. George neurotically attacks his problems and makes them worse, while Jerry shrugs and lets them go. It’s nice to see the latter’s anal qualities announcing themselves, however; he’s so bothered that his girlfriend likes a terrible TV advert that he’s mostly relieved when she breaks things off (“ To me the dialogue rings true ”). Neither Gretchen German (as Donna, Jerry’s date) nor Tory Polone (as Carol, George’s) make a huge impression, but German has more screen time and better dialogue. The main attraction is Jerry’s reactions, which include trying to impress her with hi