The 400-Word Review: War Dogs

By Sean Collier

August 22, 2016

Smug and smugger.

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Where does moral culpability end in times of war? Are only the politicians and generals responsible for the horrors of conflict, or does the guilt extend to those who put the guns on the battlefield? If the blame can go that far, why don’t the tendrils of responsibility extend farther and farther into society?

And why the hell would the guy who created the Hangover series be left to answer these questions?

In War Dogs, a pair of smooth-talking, hard-partying twentysomethings (Miles Teller and Jonah Hill) finagles a way to make small arms deals with the U.S. government. They know nothing about the military and little about guns, but plenty about exploiting loopholes. Inevitably, the pair reaches too far, competing for contracts they’re unprepared to fulfill and flying to the corners of the globe to try and keep their promises.

It’s an interesting tale, based on a true story as reported in a Rolling Stone article by Guy Lawson. Was it a particularly cinematic story? No, probably not; the arc of the boys’ downfall is less a hero’s journey and more a by-the-numbers decay. But in the right hands, it certainly could’ve been converted into a fine film.

Todd Phillips’ hands ... are not the right hands.

The Hangover director has done no features outside of that franchise for a decade, with the exception of Due Date, which may has well have been another Hangover. As a co-producer and co-writer as well, he undeniably bears responsibility for the structure and style of the film, which are cluelessly rendered; to demonstrate how lost Phillips was in setting War Dogs up, know that he just used the same structure as the Hangover movies.


Once again: This tale of geopolitical mishaps is set up like The Hangover. It opens on a third-act scene where one of the characters is in trouble, then jumps back to the top of the tale to show the audience how we got there. Which was a lot funnier with Zach Galifianakis.

I’m complaining too much about a movie I generally appreciated; Hill and Teller are quite good, and their performances combined with the genuine intrigue of the subject matter is enough to give War Dogs a passing, if unimpressive, grade. But this is another case where a decent-at-best movie might’ve been truly memorable had it been in better hands. Phillips needs to stick to pratfalls and laughing monkeys.

My Rating: 6/10

Sean Collier is the Associate Editor of Pittsburgh Magazine and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. Read more from Sean at



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