War Dogs (2016)

Money, corruption and the American dream

I’ve always thought filmmaker Todd Phillips would be more suited to directing movies that were a little bleaker, his Hangover trilogy (2009-13) becoming darker and more satirical with each passing installment. Sure, the follow-up was lazy but the third episode (in particular) alienated the very audience that made the original such a hit, Phillips tackling graver matters (of real consequence) in the final chapter, which pretty much turned out to be an all-out action-thriller. Thankfully, War Dogs sees Phillips exercise his keen eye for dramatic tension with a slick, wickedly entertaining stranger-than-fiction tale about two amateur war profiteers who got in way over their heads back in the mid-2000s when they itched into the dangerous world of global arms dealing.

Based on an article by Guy Lawson (that appeared in Rolling Stone magazine) and his subsequent book titled Arms and the Dudes, which details the original story, War Dogs is a highly fictionalized account of an astonishing real-life shemozzle. For those who might be unfamiliar with the term, the phrase ‘war dog’ actually refers to someone, such as a politician or a military person, who’s eager to persuade others into going to war, and not what the movie wants you to believe. Now back to the film …

Just another day at the office.
Just another day at the office.

Miles Teller plays David Packouz, a down-on-his-luck twentysomething college dropout living in Miami who’s making ends meet by working as a massage therapist whilst trying to land a killing on the side by selling top quality bedsheets to retirement homes. Things take a dramatic turn when David reconnects with his childhood pal Efraim Diveroli (a scene stealing Jonah Hill) at a funeral. See, while no one in David’s life is overly fond of his old ‘bad-news’ buddy, David looks up to Efraim’s hotheaded confidence and impulsive personality. As it turns out, David is in need of a big paycheck and Efraim a partner, therefore the two join forces when Efraim recruits David into his company AEY (an acronym which literally and figuratively means bupkis), where he sells weapons to the government by means of a bizarre policy loophole. Quickly moving up in the military-industrial food chain after driving a truckload of Berettas to American soldiers in Baghdad — by means of trekking through Iraq’s ‘Triangle of Death’ — the pair land a killer 300-million-dollar contract with the Pentagon (to arm the Afghan Military): a deal that could ultimately cost them their livelihood.

Written by director Phillips, Stephen Chin, Another Day in Paradise (1998), and Jason Smilovic, Lucky Number Slevin (2006), War Dogs is divided into mini chapters with filmmakers using David’s narration to steer the plot, the movie traveling down a familiar trajectory; it opens with our ‘star’ and narrator in trouble, then zips back to his humble beginnings where we see our hero climb the ranks, from rags to riches, until he reaches his inevitable undoing. Here David is rendered as your archetypal ordinary man who’s simply trying to get by, Miles Teller, Whiplash (2014), doing a credible enough job despite a slightly underwritten role. As you’d expect, he’s married to a gorgeous gal named Iz, played by the stunning Ana de Armas, Knock Knock (2015), whose only functions here are to drop results of a pregnancy test (at a vital moment in the story, no less) and to look amazing in an assortment of tank-tops and short-shorts.

'It's not about being pro-war, it's about being pro-money.'
‘It’s not about being pro-war, it’s about being pro-money.’

So it’s up to Jonah Hill, The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), to save the day, the 32-year-old stealing the spotlight at gunpoint with his tour-de-force performance as Efraim, the antagonistic Scarface-quoting wild-child, his maniacal over-the-top laugh frequently inducing an audience response. Phillips regular Bradley Cooper, American Hustle (2013), also adds weight to proceedings in an extended supporting role as the shadowy Henry Girard, the guy whom the boys turn to for access to an impressive array of arsenal, stockpiled in Albania. Last but not least, Kevin Pollak, Casino (1995), has a couple of good scenes as Ralph Slutzky, a Jewish Miami-area dry cleaning tycoon who funds Efraim’s empire with the misleading info suggesting that AEY are only engaging in deals that help defend Israel.

Truth be told, War Dogs works best when our leading lads are dodging bullets or shooting off their mouths — a sequence when David and Efraim unwillingly travel to a dangerous hotspot to deal with an Italian embargo is a bullseye — director Phillips obviously taking cues from the Martin Scorsese filmmaking handbook. Moreover, Phillips doesn’t alienate viewers by getting too bogged down in all the nitty-gritty technical aspects that allowed David and Efraim to edge themselves into the arms dealing market, choosing to focus on the more gripping elements of the story instead. That said, the flick’s soundtrack is a bit uneven with random golden oldies popping up at unusual moments (between this and Suicide Squad (2016), I think someone in the Warner Bros. soundtrack department needs a stern talking to). Furthermore, given its political subject, War Dogs lacks insight into any of its real-world matters — there’s nothing on how the George W. Bush-Dick Cheney wars were waged or the red tape that permitted two twentysomething stoners to become exceedingly rich via dealing weaponry.

Never Hustle Alone.
Never Hustle Alone.

Even though War Dogs glosses over its themes of warfare and commerce, along with David’s eventual avarice, the film (while formulaic) balances its palpable madness and sobering comedy with equal precision, Todd Phillips clearly comfortable in attacking the troubling material with a lighter touch. Fun fact, one of the film’s poster designs is actually a lampoon of the iconic artwork from Brian De Palma’s Scarface (1983), which is constantly referenced throughout the movie. A clever nod.

3 / 5 – Good

Reviewed by Mr. Movie

War Dogs is released through Roadshow Entertainment Australia