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Since making his feature directorial debut with Road Trip in 2000, director Todd Phillips has not just demonstrated greater maturity in his work, but a stronger hold on and expression of his personal sensibilities. There is a clear aesthetic difference between the Hangover trilogy and Due Date in comparison to Road Trip, Old School and Starsky & Hutch, with Phillips' later work crafting humor from darker, more dramatic, and occasionally disturbing places. It's the mark of a filmmaker getting more creative control as he's continued to have success, and in Phillips' case, it has resulted in some unique tonal complexity.

It's this 16-year-long progression in the director's filmography that has paved the path to his latest, War Dogs. Consciously evoking early 1990s Martin Scorsese, the film is his darkest and most dramatic feature yet, with comedy becoming more accent than driving force. As a result, it's a much different piece of work than what we've seen from Todd Phillips in the past -- but it's also the best movie he's made so far, and a great late summer surprise.

Based on a true story and adapted by the team of Todd Phillips, Stephen Chin and Jason Smilovic, War Dogs tells the story of David Packouz (Miles Teller), a young man doing what he can to try and create an honest life for himself and his wife (Ana de Armas) living in Miami 2005. Lucky/unlucky for David, a chance encounter reunites him with Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), his troublemaking best friend from when he was a kid, with whom his mom forced him to stop hanging out. While David has been struggling with adult life, Efraim seemingly has everything figured out, specifically one big way to make tons and tons of cash: selling weapons and ammo to the United States government.

While you'd think that this would be a gig exclusively for major companies and professionals, Efraim discovered that all military contracts were available for bidding online, and that he could make a fat living by taking on the "small crumbs" deals that were regularly being looked over. Enticed by the ability to make a whole lot of money in a very short amount of time, David partners with Efraim to create AEY Inc. -- but it's a road that winds up being fraught with extreme danger, hidden truths, high-stakes backstabbing, and some seriously scary people.

In telling the story of David and Efraim, War Dogs casually walks back and forth across the line of "factional truth" and "emotional truth," but Todd Phillips and his co-writers use that creative freedom to frame a Goodfellas/Casino-esque corrupt rise to power story that is constantly engaging and escalating. Not only does the movie do a terrific job handling the complicated exposition, as the audiences finds themselves rapidly thrown into the largely unknown world of government military contracts, but it also makes the stakes completely clear without ever talking down to the audience. In the best kind of way, you're consistently wondering exactly how the two protagonists will manage to wiggle out of the precarious situations in which they find themselves -- be it the need to personally transport munitions from Jordan to Iraq, or conceal the origin of ammo from China -- and it's constantly clever, surprising and fun as these issues unwind.

One of the most interesting hurdles that the film has to climb over is the simple fact that David and Efraim aren't exactly the most sympathetic heroes available -- to the extent that even the movie's title is a derogatory reference to their war profiteering work. It's in this department that it helps to have two of the best young actors in the business as your leads, and War Dogs benefits spectacularly from its two lead performances. As David, Miles Teller arguably plays the more challenging role, as he represents the ultimately corruptible moral center of the story, but Teller brings a fantastic humanity to the character, and has the audience still hoping to see his redemption after his series of mistakes and unfortunate decisions. In contrast, Jonah Hill's Efraim is total id-driven nutball and emotional manipulator (outfitted with a perfectly weird high-pitched laugh), but he's simply tremendously compelling in his unpredictability, as he drags David and movie-goers further down the rabbit hole. They're the exact kind of duo needed to take us through a story like War Dogs, able to play up both the serious drama and stranger-than-fiction weirdness, and Teller and Hill are simply amazing together.

In the same way the movie is a tonal benchmark for Todd Phillips' feature career, it's also what can be called the most aesthetically built and beautiful film he's made -- again the result of years of build-up. The director first got his chance to show his ability to utilize epic and jaw-dropping landscapes with the desert photography in The Hangover - but with War Dogs he gets the chance to revisit Vegas, capture the indulgence of Miami, and travel to the Middle East, and the results are spectacular (with due credit also going to cinematographer Lawrence Sher). And even as music has played a key role in all of Phillips' work, his channeling of Scorsese here lets the movie's soundtrack really pop, filled with an eclectic mix of songs that perfectly accentuate the film's best moments (from 50 Cent's "What's Up Gangsta" to The Who's "Behind Blue Eyes").

Side by side, War Dogs and Road Trip look like they could have been made by two very different filmmakers, but if more films like the former is the direction Todd Phillips' career is moving towards, it's openly welcome. His latest is an excellent character study, a fantastic tale neatly packaged into a compelling drama, and a tremendous showcase for two great stars -- all coming together as a great big screen adventure.

9 / 10 stars
Rating: movie reviewed star rating out of five
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