A film review by Craig J. Koban August 27, 2016


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. 



It's 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. 

Despite 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. 

The 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. 

This 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.  

Yeah…no kidding.


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