WAR DOGS ½
R, 114 mins.
2016, R, 114 mins.
Miles Teller as David Packouz / Jonah Hill as Efraim Diveroli / Ana de Armas as Iz / Barry Livingston as Army Bureaucrat
Directed by Todd Phillips / Written by Phillips, Jason Smilovic, and Stephen Chin, based on the Rolling Stone article "Arms and the Dudes" by Guy Lawson
Todd Phillips’ WAR DOGS tells a story that would be exceedingly hard to believe if it weren’t based on fact.
Based on Guy
Lawson’s Rolling Stone magazine expose ARMS AND THE DUDES, the film
concerns two very young twentysomething entrepreneurs that dabbled in gun
running and arms dealing with the U.S. government, and at the height of
their insatiable greed and hubris (and perhaps stupidity) committed fraud
on a massive scale while trying to score a multi-million dollar weapons
contract with them. Not only does WAR DOGS become remarkably fascinating as a
chronicle – and indictment – of how American authorities were so
alarmingly duped by two conmen, the film also becomes a richly textured
rags-to-riches account of a pair of in-over-their-heads businessmen that
let their yearning for wealth seriously cloud their better judgments to
the point where they got into a lot of trouble with the wrong people.
One of these men
was 22-year-old Floridian massage therapist and bed sheet salesman David
Packouz (a very well cast Miles Teller), at least that’s what he did
before he became a very rich arms dealer.
Opening in the mid-2000’s, WAR DOGS introduces us to the mostly happy, but ultimately dissatisfied David as he desperately tries to make
ends meet to support his wife Iz (KNOCK KNOCK’s
Ana de Arma) and their child-to-be. Fate
steps in when David reconnects with an old high school buddy in Efraim
Diveroli (played with maximum slimy charm by Jonah Hill), whom has become
a successful businessman in the ten years that has past since their last
hook-up. David and Efraim
were a couple of infamous stoner troublemakers back in the day, and their
respective lives have clearly gone in polar opposite directions of
success. David and his wife
are relatively destitute and can barely afford food, whereas Efraim is
tanned, well tailored, and adored with jewellery...and for obvious
reasons, this intrigues the inquisitive David.
soon revealed that Efraim has made a quick killing as a
small time player in arms dealing and has discovered an online network
used by the U.S. government to buy military weapons in bulk to supply
their armies all over the world. David becomes entranced in all of the lucrative possibilities
of such an enterprise and quickly becomes Efraim’s partner at his
insistence. One of their
first big scores almost ends up costing them their business rep (and
forces them to run the weapons themselves through one of the most
dangerous stretches of highway in Iraq to a very needy U.S. military
command there). After this
success, Efraim and David become superstars in the industry, and with a
little help from a shady supplier (Bradley Cooper, in a minor, but juicy
role), the duo sets their sights on a major contract with the government
that involves providing millions of rounds of ammo to them.
There’s one problem, though: the ammo Efraim and David secure is
42-years-old and Chinese, the latter being a big sticking point seeing as
the U.S. has a vast embargo against China.
At their desperate wit's end – and not wanting to lose an ungodly
amount of money – Efraim and David employ some highly unusual – and
very, very illegal – methods to ensure that their arms deal goes
through and without the government knowing of the ammo’s origin.
the fact that WAR DOGS is historically centered during two very
contestable wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Phillips and co-writers Jason
Smilovic and Stephen Chin make the story refreshingly apolitical.
The film is not trying to be a sobering commentary piece on the
nature of armed conflict itself, but rather a damning and critical
depiction of its chief protagonists highly unethical business behavior
during times of war. Then
there’s also the whole thorny nature of the almost laughable gullibility
of the American government for the manner they were initially so easily
tricked by just two power players in a very competitive industry.
Seeing Efraim and David conspire – and throw all sane common
sense out the window – against the very powerful force that paid them
(selling horrifically outdated army surplus manufactured in a nation that
the U.S. has fractured relationships with) shows these guys the zenith of
their naïve overconfidence. How
they thought their scheme would be airtight and untraceable is beyond me.
audience surrogate in WAR DOGS is David; he slowly begins to see the
curtain of Efraim’s immoral and dangerous practices get opened from
within. Teller has been known
for playing affectionate motormouths in past films, so it’s nice to see
him play a reserved, decent, and mostly noble family man here that begins
to see the substantial error of his ways.
He's paired effortlessly with Hill, who is able to portray
duplicitous minded jerks with an outward façade of false kindness perhaps
better than any other actor alive. Efraim
is a chronic liar, aggressive bully, a deplorable narcissist, and
displays tendencies that hint towards a sociopathic personality.
Yet, Hill makes him so intoxicatingly inviting as a personality in
WAR DOGS that it’s easy to see how he lured David in so easily.
Hill is rock solid and confidently in his performance wheelhouse
all throughout this film; when he’s on screen you’re both magnetized
by him while wanting to slap him across his smug face at the same time.
just might be Phillips’ finest hour as a director, and it certainly
represents a major seismic qualitative shift for him coming off of one too
many HANGOVER sequels and the equally insipid road comedy DUE
DATE. It’s pretty
abundantly clear that he’s miming the aesthetic playbook of Martin
Scorsese throughout WAR DOGS, which is not entirely a bad thing (if
you’re going to borrow…borrow from the best).
What’s ultimately so invigorating about Phillips’ work here is
his brazen and newfound directorial self-assurance as well as his rather
adept handling of the film’s rather serious questions that it poses
about the whole world of arms dealing and the political and financial
forces that are inextricably linked to it.
WAR DOGS has been advertised as a buddy comedy, which is kind of a
misnomer. It’s more of a
fact-based drama with comedic elements buried deep within and evokes
Phillips at arguably his most mature as a filmmaker.
That, and the film looks great too, as cinematographer Lawrence
Sher does a bravura job of capturing the unforgiving harshness of the
locales that Efraim and David find themselves struck in throughout.
WAR DOGS does suffer from a bit of a rushed third act as its tries to bring hasty closure to Efraim's and David’s tumultuous and fractured relationship (the haphazard approach here doesn’t jive with the free wheeling sense of spontaneity that a majority of the film leading into its climax had). That, and the film is saddled with yet another obligatory, paint-by-numbers grieving wife role and subplots of domestic woe between David and his wife that feel like they’ve been ripped from hundreds of films before it. Still, I was frankly amazed by how effortlessly transfixing WAR DOGS was in showcasing how the economic imperatives of war and combat sometimes override all other impulses and motives. The film is darker than I expected with the source material (especially more so than the trailers let on) and Hill and Teller have such an authentic and relaxed chemistry on screen that helps sell the story's crazy veracity. Efraim's and David’s malfeasance did catch up with them, seeing as the former ended up doing four years in prison for trying to defraud the government, whereas the latter received seven months house arrest. The U.S. Army were also forced to revaluate their own contracting procedures as a result of their dealings with the pair.