What makes a bro movie?
To start, you need a focus on over-privileged white guys in their 20s and their misadventures in the world of finance, sports, law enforcement or the criminal underworld. Then add an underwritten role for any up-and-coming actress willing to roll her eyes and sigh heavily while wearing either breezy sundresses or skimpy lingerie, but nothing in between. Oh, and you'll need lots of man-hugging, knucklehead humour and, naturally, at least three dozen instances of the main characters saying "bro." (Variations, such as "brah" and "broseph" and possibly even "brolo" are also acceptable, insofar that they are generally unacceptable.) So, basically, yes, almost every major mainstream movie can be classified as a bro movie.
But War Dogs is something else – Peak Bro, if you will. Its two heroes are brash twentysomething gun runners, who when not getting high or getting drunk or fist-bumping each other whilst both high and drunk, cruise around Miami in luxury cars, with matching vanity plates that read "GUNS" and "&AMMO." They fire off AK-47s like it's no big thing, get trashed at Florida's finest luxury hell holes, offer women $1,000 for oral sex on the spot, and say "bro" almost as much as they swear – come to think of it, they employ the three-letter word so often and in such vulgar circumstances that it becomes an obscenity all its own. Bro, bro, bro: slow down!
War Dogs's uber-bro-ness shouldn't come as much of a surprise, though, seeing as it's directed by Todd Phillips, the man responsible for The Hangover trilogy (yes, they made three!), the high-water mark of bro cinema. In fact, Phillips's CV as both a director and producer reads like a syllabus for the most dedicated scholars of the bro-sthetic: Old School, Starsky & Hutch, Road Trip, Project X. The man has made a career out of chronicling, and glorifying, the lives of overgrown frat boys.
And were it not for one of War Dogs's stars, this new film, too, would be a write-off: a typical exercise of Phillips-ian excess. But Phillips has never worked with Jonah Hill before – and Jonah Hill can elevate even the most shallow of projects. The actor, best known for his contributions to the Judd Apatow cinematic universe, is a secret weapon of sorts: a natural comic player who is every bit as talented when it comes to finding the darker shades of a character. His financial predator in The Wolf of Wall Street is a perfect portrait of rabid immorality. His journalist in the underwatched True Story is a skillful manipulator. And his tightly wound man-child in Cyrus is an insidious familial terror the likes of which have rarely been seen.
In War Dogs, Hill plays the sociopathic Efraim Diveroli, a real-life arms dealer who – along with his partner and childhood best friend David Packouz (Miles Teller) – managed to win a huge government contract to supply weapons to U.S. troops in Afghanistan, which almost immediately goes haywire. To portray the scheming, selfish Diveroli – or at least War Dogs's version of Diveroli as the man himself did not co-operate with the filmmakers – Hill adopts a wheezy laugh that's downright maniacal, and carries himself with such a confident and intimidating manner that washes away any memories of the actor's more clownish performances. It's a terrifying, towering performance, and one that would normally lend Hill toward Oscar consideration, if only the rest of the film matched his talents.
Instead, Phillips delivers a mostly by-the-book rise-and-fall saga of two bros in way over their heads, complete with ostentatious title cards that, instead of subtly addressing the film's themes of greed and jealousy, only hammer the moral lessons with the grace of a rusty Kalashnikov. And the rest of the cast doesn't even try to live up to Hill's game, with Teller meekly disappearing into his role as the more palatable of the two merchants of death, and Ana de Armas given little to do but pout as Packouz's impossibly beautiful girlfriend. (Only Phillips's longtime bro-in-arms Bradley Cooper seems to be enjoying himself, playing a delightfully sleazy black-market big shot.)
Hill, of course, will emerge unscathed from whatever battle scars War Dogs leaves on his IMDb profile. But audiences, well, we might be stuck with bro cinema for some time yet. Bro, say it ain't so.