On movie screens in recent years, director Todd Phillips has had Will Ferrell starting a fraternity, offered up Huggy Bear as a key crime-solving tool and relied on Zach Galifianakis to track down missing persons (twice).
The profiteering nature of modern warfare has — thus far — not been a central concern.
Yet in one of the summer's most unexpected filmmaker-story pairings, Phillips arrives with "War Dogs," a category-defying look at the 2000s-era underworld of U.S. gun-running. To say that the fact-based movie marks a shift for Phillips — the raunch-auteur who for much of the last decade has been working on the "Hangover" franchise — is like saying the wolf pack's Alan Garner may have a few maturity issues.
To viewers, the movie offers a surprise shift to drama after the exploits and goofiness of Phillips' previous work. To the director, the project offers its own startling turn, not least because he's in a cinematic world of no recognizable title or category for the first time in a long while.
"It's hard to go back," Phillips said, "to making a movie that no one is waiting for."
Certainly few will be expecting hard-hitting issues from the helmer when Warner Bros. opens "War Dogs" on Aug. 19. Set in the heat of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, the film stars Jonah Hill as Efraim Diveroli, a freewheeling street kid who claws his way into the high-stakes arms-dealing game (eye-catchingly reprising his money-seeking wheeler-dealer from "The Wolf of Wall Street" if in somewhat different form). With his more strait-laced and reluctant childhood pal David Packouz (Miles Teller), Diveroli combs for military contracts too small for most major players to chase — "the crumbs," as he calls them. (Crumbs to the weapons giants make for a plenty large cake for two inexperienced Jewish kids from Miami.)
After setting up shop in their hometown, the pair are soon embarking on tense global adventures to the chagrin of Packouz's fiancee (the Cuban Spanish actress Ana de Armas). "War Dogs" has the Keystone pair in dramatic scenarios — dodging machine-gun fire in Fallujah and maneuvering for a major government weapons contract by way of Albania.
Though the idea of young men in over their heads overseas will conjure certain "Hangover"-ish moments (and Phillips' ability to get a movie like this made at WB may owe something to that prior $1.4-billion global franchise), the tones couldn't be more different. "War Dogs" offers the occasional comedic beat (provided largely by Diveroli's gaudy swagger). But the film mainly is interested in raising the stakes for the sympathetic if hardly blameless young men — and, more important, in indicting 21st century U.S. war as primarily a capitalist enterprise.
"I think with movies like 'The Big Short' there's a lot of interest in showing the system is rigged," Phillips, 45, said. "People nowadays are coming to that realization, and a lot of movies help in that."
As with "The Big Short," a film that showed its heroes profiting from the 2008 economic crash, audiences may find themselves conflicted. Watching Diveroli and Packouz try to scrap their way to the good life is likely to instill quiet cheering — then just as quickly force viewers to question their own allegiances. "War Dogs" walks the line between glorifying a shady life and offering a cautionary tale about it.
"The nature of movies with great characters is to make us ask, 'Why am I rooting for them?' I was rooting for Al Pacino in 'Scarface' even though he's the worst guy in the world," Phillips added of the movie that's referenced in "War Dogs."
Phillips, who was able to meet with the real-life Packouz but not Diveroli, seeks to bring his own sense of style to the proceedings. He directs the film with a glossy look that maximizes Miami's palm-tree vistas and a soundtrack composed heavily of arty covers.
A Hollywood trope has it that every comedian wants to make dramas and every serious personality wishes to be funny. Phillips, who wrote the "War Dogs" script with Jason Smilovic and Stephen Chin off a Guy Lawson Rolling Stone story about the real-life gun-runners, downplays an explicit interest in putting the three "Hangover" movies behind him (he also directed the similarly spirited road comedy "Due Date" in 2010). He says that he simply saw in the magazine article a compelling story of young men facing challenges.
But he acknowledges that the adjustment wasn't always easy.
"People say comedy can be the hardest thing to do. But sometimes in comedy you can use a crutch — like, you don't know how to get out of a scene so you just have someone do something ridiculous," he said. "You don't have the ability in a film like this, and that has wakened me." (Whether he wants to stay awakened for other dramas down the road is an open question; he says he hasn't decided on his next film.)
In any event, maybe an indictment of a free-market run amok isn't so far removed from the themes of Phillips' earlier movies. As people look hungrily for their slice of the good life, they continue to enjoy the party-happy times, keeping them going like they will last forever. Until, one day, a nation wakes up with a nasty hangover.
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