Review of “War Dogs”

David Packouz (Miles Teller) is struggling trying to find a purpose in life. He’s a licensed massage therapist and is also trying to sell Egyptian cotton sheets to nursing homes in Miami. Neither is going very well. At a funeral he runs into childhood friend Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) who has recently moved back to Miami after living and working in California. Efraim is selling guns, ammunition and other supplies to the U.S. military, using a government website to look for small contracts on which the larger weapons manufacturers don’t bother to bid. Efraim invites David to join him in his new endeavor called AEY, Inc. after David is told by his girlfriend Iz (Ana de Armas) she’s pregnant. Quickly, Efraim and David are making deals and selling supplies to the U.S. military. They are also making huge amounts of money. A big contract providing Beretta handguns to the Iraqi police force runs into a snag when David and Efraim discover Italian law prevents the guns be shipped directly to Iraq. Efraim arranges for them to be shipped to Jordan then transported to Iraq but that deal falls through. Desperate to fulfill their contract, Efraim and David go to Jordan and hire a driver named Marlboro (Shaun Toub) to get the weapons to Baghdad and discover (when they are attacked) that they are travelling through the infamous Triangle of Death. Efraim thrives on the danger and borderline illegality of the job while David would prefer to stay out of the hot zone. The possibility of a huge military contract to resupply the Afghan military puts David and Efraim in touch with legendary arms dealer Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper) who will help them put the deal together with Cold War weapons and ammo from Albania in exchange for a cut of the profits. Girard can’t deal directly with the U.S. Government since he is on a terrorist watch list. The possibility of a huge payday lead Efraim and David to make compromises and take short cuts that could land them in prison.

The thing that makes “War Dogs” so scary is it is based on a true story. Two twenty-something bros managed to get involved in arms dealing at the perfect time. The Bush administration was fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and needed to equip millions of U.S. soldiers then needed to re-equip Iraqi and Afghan forces for the post war. The possibility of making enormous amounts of money led not just Packouz and Diveroli but many others to take short cuts in procuring weapons and supplies. “War Dogs” in some ways is like “The Big Short” in that it’s a cautionary tale that will likely be ignored the next time a major conflict breaks out involving the United States. Money has a way of making people forget past mistakes.

Jonah Hill has an amazing and somewhat scary ability to play utterly corrupt individuals with enormous style and believability. His “Wolf of Wall Street” character, while slightly less dangerous, is equally morally bankrupt to Efraim Diveroli. Hill can show us both sides of Diveroli as both the caring friend and the uncaring business partner. But as the film progresses, it becomes clear Diveroli is running a con on everyone he encounters as he tries to take people for whatever he can get out of them. His friend David is no exception. The beauty of Hill’s performance is we hope Diveroli is a decent guy when it comes ot Packouz and, for a while, we believe he is. It is only later in the film it becomes apparent Diveroli only has room in his heart for himself. Hill does an amazing job with the character.

Miles Teller is also great as David Packouz. While his character is less complex than Hill’s, Teller is able to play Packouz as a likeable guy that is looking to become something greater than what he feels he is. He also has a girlfriend and daughter to provide for and that often makes him look the other way as their business dealings get progressively shadier. Teller is the emotional anchor of the film. He is the everyman that represents the audience and gives us a way into this world. Teller’s scarred face, from a near fatal auto accident in 2007, makes us almost immediately feel empathy for his character. This is a face that has seen some hard times and taken on difficulties. While the scars have nothing to do with the character, it adds a layer of sympathy and concern and the audience cares what happens to David.

The underused supporting cast, including the always great Kevin Pollack, fills in the holes of the story quite nicely. Ana de Armas, used primarily as both David’s conscience and eye candy, is locked into a traditionally female role. The loving girlfriend and caring mother to a new baby girl, de Armas gets the dirty job of nagging her boyfriend to not lie about what he’s really doing. I suppose it’s a necessary role to keep the character rooted in the real world. Bradley Cooper is understated as international arms dealer Henry Girard. Girard is quietly dangerous and makes that clear in a scene late in the film. Cooper, who is also a producer on the film, makes the most of his brief appearances and gives the movie a villain other than Diveroli. Kevin Pollack plays a minor supporting character but is always a joy to watch. As he learns exactly the kind of business partner Diveroli is late in the film, the subtle changes in his face make a very tense scene somewhat comical.

The story in “War Dogs” is a bit dense with layer upon layer of deception and misdirection. Quite frankly, the minutiae of their business dealings get a bit tedious at times. Export licenses, government websites and trade embargoes often fill their conversations and it slows down the story quite a bit. When Efraim and David are getting their hands dirty transporting guns across Iraq or visiting a warehouse filled with Cold War weapons and munitions in Albania, the movie feels much more alive and dangerous.

“War Dogs” is rated R for language throughout, drug use and some sexual references. Drug use is very common throughout the film. Both Diveroli and Packouz are shown smoking weed and snorting powder on numerous occasions. Sexual references are scattered but explicit. Foul language is common throughout the film.

“War Dogs” is an example of how huge amounts of money corrupts everything it touches from friends to governments. It turns people into greedy, heartless monsters and governments into…greedy, heartless monsters. While many of the events of “War Dogs” were either exaggerated or invented from whole cloth, it only takes looking at the news or knowing more than one other person to show the basic idea of the film is played out every day in real life all around us. Money is a driving factor for many of our lives as we need it to procure food, shelter, transportation and, to a degree, relationships. Most of us can keep our lives in perspective with the kind of incomes average people make; however, when millions of dollars are within the grasp of someone who places personal wealth above all else, judgement and decency can be considered faults that cannot be afforded. As the old saying goes, the love of money is the root of all evil.

“War Dogs” gets four guitars out of five.

This week your entertainment options consist of dark horror, biographical athleticism and an action reboot. I’ll see at least one of the following:

Don’t Breathe—

Hands of Stone—

Mechanic: Resurrection—

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman@comcast.net.

Review of “Fantastic Four”

A troubled past doesn’t guarantee failure. Films like “Titanic,” “Jaws” and perhaps most famously “Apocalypse Now” are just a few films that were created in turbulent environments. Whether the trouble was a conflict between the cast and the director, the director and the studio, between cast members or some other configuration, good work still came from what could have potentially been a disaster; however, some productions, like “Alien 3,” “Cop Out” and “Waterworld” are doomed to failure when egos and power struggles get in the way of making an enjoyable bit of entertainment. The latter appears to be what happened to Fox Studios’ “Fantastic Four” reboot.

As a child, Reed Richards (played as an adult by Miles Teller) dreamed of building a matter transporter…and he actually succeeded thanks to parts provided by his friend Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) from his family’s junk and salvage yard. Reed considers Ben his best friend and good luck charm. Reed is discovered at a high school science fair by Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey) and his adopted daughter Sue (Kate Mara) and invited to attend is institute of gifted young people in the Baxter Tower in New York City. Ben stays home to work in the family business. Dr. Storm also has a son named Johnny (Michael B. Jordan) who is a brilliant mechanic that prefers to spend his time tinkering with his car and running in illegal street races than in a lab. A crash that totals his car forces him to work for his father in the lab. Dr. Storm is working on an interdimensional transporter and believes Reed can push his research over the edge. The project was started by Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell), a brilliant but troubled scientist who has some less than pleasant history with Dr. Storm and they no longer work together. Dr. Storm gets his funding from a shadowy board of directors with ties to the government led by Harvey Elder (Tim Blake Nelson). With Reed on board and Victor back in the fold largely because he loves Sue, the interdimensional transporter is perfected. Elder wants to turn the project over the NASA and the government but Dr. Storm wants to keep the project in house and under his control. After a few rounds of drinks, Reed, Victor and Johnny decide to take the transporter for a test spin on their own and Reed calls Ben because he was there for the earliest experiments in the garage and wants his good luck charm to come along. Ben agrees and they are soon teleported to another dimension. It’s a barren world with storm clouds overhead and pools of glowing green liquid. Victor puts his hand in the fluid and can feel the energy coursing through it; but it also causes a chain reaction that is causing the ground beneath their feet to come apart. Victor is engulfed in green flames and falls down a cliff. The others run to the transporter pod to go home where Sue is trying to initiate the return sequence. Fire engulfs Johnny, Ben is encased in rock, Reed is bathed in unknown energy and Sue is hit with a blast from the other dimension when the pod reappears. Each is endowed with unique powers and abilities.

While far from being a great movie “Fantastic Four” isn’t as bad as the Rotten Tomatoes score of 9% might imply. The introduction to the group, their transformation and dealing with their powers is actually pretty good. You get a good idea of the personality of each main player and the conflict between Victor and Reed gets an understandable foundation. It is the part of the story where the four put their powers to use where the train goes off the rails.

The whole structure of the film feels flimsy and unfinished. The set up to what should be the super showdown is incredibly long when compared to the finale which feels like it plays out in about 10 minutes, if that. What appears to have been planned as a two hour plus film is over in an hour-40. While many comic book movies are too long, “Fantastic Four” isn’t long enough as we are shown huge amounts of history and preparation leading to an ending that is anti-climactic. Granted, I think everyone knows the good guys are always going to win in the end of a superhero movie but it shouldn’t feel like the kind of role-playing game I used to participate in as a child with my friends when, after one of us had been shot with the death ray or whatever the evil scheme entailed, we popped right up, saved the damsel in distress and put the villain in his place.

“Fantastic Four” director Josh Trank made an impressive debut with his first studio film “Chronicle.” The story of three high school kids who gain powers from a mysterious alien artifact was a low-budget, found-footage gem. The story was great, the effects were good and the whole thing worked together for a wonderfully enjoyable time at the movies. That film got him the “Fantastic Four” gig but something happened that turned what should have been a dream into a nightmare. Trank can be heard on the Kevin Smith podcast “Fatman on Batman” giving a thorough history of his early life, how he became a filmmaker and the process of making “Fantastic Four.” It takes, coincidentally, four episodes to tell the whole story. Nowhere in those four episodes, about six hours of content, does Trank complain about the making of “Fantastic Four” or Fox executives; however, on Thursday, August 6, Trank tweeted the following: “A year ago I had a fantastic version of this. And it would’ve received great reviews. You’ll probably never see it. That’s reality though.” Trank quickly deleted the tweet but it was of course screen captured. While vague, this tweet seems to be saying the film was interfered with by Fox executives and turned into something other than his original vision. There is of course another side to the story that suggests Trank may have been in over his head and/or was difficult to work with. The truth lies somewhere in the middle with enough blame to go around for both sides. The product of this middle ground is a movie with an odd structure, average at best special effects, a villain that doesn’t make much sense, has odd motivations for his evil plan and a story that starts out fine then turns into a mess at the conclusion.

“Fantastic Four” is rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence and language. We see a couple of characters engulfed in flames. One character causes people’s heads to kind of explode. We see a splash of blood on the wall behind them. There is a fight where giant boulders are used as weapons. Foul language is scattered and mild.

Josh Trank’s tweet, the troubled production and the poor box office showing of “Fantastic Four” may put the director in movie jail for a period of time. Movie jail is when filmmakers can’t get a job after what is perceived to be a failure on their part. Trank will likely survive just fine in the wilderness of independent filmmaking where he can be fully in charge of the production with little to no interference. But that leaves us to wonder just what kind of “Fantastic Four” the director had in mind. Will we ever see it? Will there ever be an entertaining version of Marvel’s first super team that isn’t a cartoon? Are Mr. Fantastic, The Invisible Woman, The Human Torch and The Thing just too tough a nut to crack? Should Fox make a deal with Marvel like Sony did with Spider-Man and share the movie rights? Speculating about all this is far more entertaining than watching the movie, as this “Fantastic Four” may actually be worse than the dayglow colored version we got a decade ago.

“Fantastic Four” gets one star out of five.

The music that spoke to one generation and frightened another and a TV to film crossover open in theatres this week. I’ll see and review at least one of these.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E.—

Straight Outta Compton—

Follow me on Twitter (I try not to be too controversial) @moviemanstan. Send emails to stanthemovieman@comcast.net.