War Dogs doesn’t know what it wants to be.
When I heard Todd Phillips was directing War Dogs, I became uneasy, even though I’m a huge fan of Old School and the first Hangover film (his other movies . . . not so much). I assumed that if Phillips was behind the camera, the true story of two guys who duped their way into becoming successful arms dealers would be given his typical “bros behaving badly” comedy treatment. I don’t know about the rest of you, but these days I just don’t feel like laughing about anything having to do with guns, ammo, war and violence.
It turns out that War Dogs isn’t really about any of those things. Instead it focuses more on exactly how screwed up the U.S. military’s weapons-purchasing system was in the very recent past. So much so that Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill)—a fast-talking, drug-loving twentysomething—figured out a brilliant way to win certain types of government contracts for guns and ammo. In 2005, he returned to his hometown of Miami Beach, just as his best bud from junior high, David Packouz (Miles Teller), is hitting rock bottom. David’s barely making a living as a masseuse for creepy rich dudes, his girlfriend is pregnant, and then he loses all of his money on a lame get-rich-quick scheme he dreams up. David needs a savior, and Efraim needs a partner he can trust. After the two friends reunite, it’s not long before Efraim brings David in on his hunt for government scraps.
Their business, AEY, grows and grows, thanks to bold moves the guys make, such as personally delivering weapons to a U.S. base in Baghdad (which didn’t actually happen, but was still one of the best parts of the film). They get richer and richer. Of course they can’t stop there—they have to try their hand at bidding for high-ticket contracts. And of course they end up winning one: a $300 million order for 100 million rounds of AK-47 ammo, among other things, for our troops in Afghanistan.
Up until this point in the film, Phillips was mostly relying on the charisma of and believable bromance between his two leads. Hill is especially great—milking the sleaze factor for all it’s worth. There are homages to Scorsese all over the place, from freeze-frames to voice-overs to a rockin’ soundtrack. And since the film is told from David’s point of view, there are also similarities to “rise and fall”/ “cautionary tale” Scorsese films like Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street in particular.
But Phillips falls short of making any clear point with War Dogs, especially after AEY’s business dealings in Albania—where they are sourcing the required ammo for Afghanistan—take a dark turn. David is a two-dimensional, wishy-washy character that you are never completely rooting for, sympathizing with or hating. The fact Phillips threw in another wishy-washy character in the form of David’s clearly-there-for-eye-candy girlfriend Iz (Ana de Armas), who didn’t exist in real life, just added to the problem.
Is War Dogs supposed to be a comedy? Some sort of satire? A sobering indictment? Phillips tries to make it all of these things at different points throughout the movie, and the cumulative effect doesn’t work. To make matters worse, the film completely brushes over the most horrifying result of AEY’s Albanian scheme and ends with a whimper on a very odd note.
But there is some good news: thanks to the scandal depicted in this film, the military’s weapons-purchasing process has supposedly been overhauled. It is odd that Phillips chose to significantly dramatize David and Efraim’s story, because if you read up on what actually happened (I highly recommend Guy Larson’s 2011 Rolling Stone article—or his eventual book—on the subject), it’s actually crazier than almost anything he fictionalized for War Dogs.
The Bottom-Line? Even though its “based on a true story” claim is stretching the truth, War Dogs still has a fascinating story to tell. It’s worth seeing (or renting) for Hill’s performance, if nothing else. I just wish director Todd Phillips had a clear point he was trying to make.
Cast: Miles Teller (David Packouz), Jonah Hill (Efraim Diveroli), Ana de Armas (Iz), Bradley Cooper (Henry Girard)
Credits: Directed by Todd Phillips; written by Stephen Chin, Todd Phillips and Jason Smilovic
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Run Time: 1 hour 54 minutes
Erika Olson © August 19, 2016