After making a name for himself in comedies, including the three “Hangover” films and “Old School,” director Todd Phillips takes aim at something a little more serious in “War Dogs.”
And while the true story of a pair of 20-somethings who conned their way into a government contract in the early 2000s is a departure from his earlier work, Phillips is still able to incorporate some of his techniques quite well to create an engaging morality tale with very few morals to speak of.
Miles Teller and Jonah Hill star as David and Efraim, two friends living in Miami who find a way to exploit a government initiative to allow small businesses a chance to bid on U.S. military contracts. Before long they have built an empire and set their sights on a bigger prize, a $300 million deal to arm the Afghan military. This sets off a series of events that puts the friends in danger with everyone and has David questioning Efraim’s sanity and scruples.
“War Dogs” has a lot of things going for it that last year’s best picture nominee “The Big Short” had going for it. The film featured director Adam McKay transitioning from Will Ferrell comedies to something with a little more bite. If “The Big Short” exposed the seedy underbelly of Wall Street, then “War Dogs” tackles the price of war in the same manner, although not with the same gusto.
Phillips takes the frenetic pacing from his “Hangover” films and puts it to good work here. He also does a good job of finding some dark humor sprinkled in.
Teller and Hill are both very good, with Hill effectively capturing the unhinged nature of his character. Bradley Cooper also has a nice small role as a shady arms dealer who still gets work despite being on the terrorist watch list.
“War Dogs” isn’t without some problems, the main one being that the film tends to glorify what these guys do, almost glamorizing their criminal actions. Teller’s character is the only one even close to being sympathetic, and his character is just as unappealing at times as everyone else.
But I’m willing to overlook that because the subject matter isn’t pretty. These are some ugly people, doing ugly things for money, and for that “War Dogs” does its job of making the audience see a side of America that surely no one wants to talk about.
Also in theaters
On the heels of last week’s “Pete’s Dragon” comes another family film that deserves to find an audience. “Kubo and the Two Strings” (B+) is a smart animated film from the same studio that brought you “Coraline,” “Paranorman” and “The Boxtrolls.”
And it soars with stirring visuals and a strong story.
“Kubo and the Two Strings” follows a boy named Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson), whose life is turned upside down when an old nemesis leaves him without his mother and father. This sends Kubo on a quest to locate a magical suit of armor worn by his late father in order defeat that nemesis – with a talking monkey (Charlize Theron) and half-human beetle (Matthew McConaughey) by his side.
“Kubo” is visually stirring, with director Travis Knight bringing an almost storybook style to the whole thing. The adventures are magnificently staged, and the attention to detail in the characters’ facial expressions are impressive and really add a dimension that isn’t always present in animated films.
The cast, which also includes Rooney Mara, Ralph Fiennes and George Takei, also brings a lot to the table, creating some of the more memorable animated characters of 2016.
This film doesn’t talk down to its audience, with a story and moments that are complex but can still be enjoyed by children of all ages.
Parents will find themselves just as enchanted by a film that I am willing to bet will be in the running for an Oscar for best animated film.
“Kubo and the Two Strings” is rated PG for thematic elements, scary images, action and peril and is now playing at the Regal Bowling Green Stadium 12, Highland Cinemas in Glasgow and Franklin Drive-In.