Movie Review: “War Dogs”

Miles Teller, Jonah Hill, Ana de Armas, Bradley Cooper, Kevin Pollack
Todd Phillips

It’s been three years since director Todd Phillips released the critically derided final installment in his “Hangover” trilogy, and in that time, his aspirations as a filmmaker have clearly grown. Phillips’ latest movie, based on the 2011 Rolling Stone article “The Stoner Arms Dealers” by Guy Lawson (which was later turned into a book titled “Arms and the Dudes”), is a measured attempt to showcase his serious side à la “The Big Short.” But while “War Dogs” occupies a similar space as Adam McKay’s Oscar-winning dramedy, providing an entertaining look at how a pair of ambitious twentysomething pals became millionaires due to the U.S. government’s own negligence, it doesn’t really have anything important to say – or rather, the important stuff feels like an afterthought compared to the highly dramatized events at the center of the film.

The year is 2005, and college dropout David Packouz (Miles Teller) is working as a licensed massage therapist in Miami Beach while trying to launch his own business selling bedsheets to retirement homes. When his latest scheme fails and his girlfriend Iz (Ana de Armas) announces that she’s pregnant, David decides that he needs to find a real job in order to support his family. Enter childhood friend Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), a bottom-feeding arms dealer who’s moved back to town after working for his uncle selling police-seized weapons in California. Efraim has started his own arms dealing business in Miami, and it’s pretty successful, living off the crumbs of small military contracts that the major companies generally ignore. Efraim offers to bring on David to help with the day-to-day operations, and within six months, the pair lands its biggest deal yet. But when that contract leads to a more lucrative opportunity with the Pentagon to supply weapons and ammo to the Afghan army, the two friends quickly find themselves in over their heads.

“War Dogs” is a bit of a mess thematically in that it can’t quite decide if it wants to be a satire on the Bush-Cheney invasion of Iraq or a cautionary tale about immorality and greed, but despite its inconsistent tone, the movie succeeds thanks to the chemistry between its two stars. Though Teller is stuck in a fairly bland role as the straight man of the duo (a suspiciously neutered version of David that was likely affected by the real-life subject’s involvement in the film), the actor’s natural charisma and talent for playing likable assholes makes him a more compelling and relatable character than he ought to be. Hill has the flashier part as the egomaniacal wild card Efraim, and although it’s not as great as his performance in the likeminded “The Wolf of Wall Street,” he’s such a magnetic presence that it explains how someone like David could be charmed so easily. Bradley Cooper also appears in a fun cameo as a notorious arms dealer who does business with the two guys, though it’s one of those cases where having an A-list actor suddenly pop up in your movie detracts from the story.

When the film focuses on David and Efraim’s hustle (including an amusing sequence in the second act where they must personally smuggle a shipment of guns across the Jordanian border into Baghdad), “War Dogs” is really enjoyable. Where it falters is in its reliance on familiar plot turns (the concerned girlfriend, the inevitable screw-up), as well as a surprising lack of commentary on the war itself. Phillips is more interested in the rags-to-riches story than how the U.S. government managed to get conned by a pair of inexperienced frat bros who had no business bidding on a $300 million military contract. While the movie delivers some interesting insight into the world of arms dealing and even takes a few jabs at the Bush administration along the way, it’s never as effective as the films it’s obviously aping. “The Big Short” and “The Wolf of Wall Street” this is not, and although it works just fine as a piece of late-summer entertainment, for a movie called “War Dogs,” it’s all bark and no bite.