War Dogs comes to us from four credited writers. One of them is Guy Lawson, who wrote the Rolling Stone article — and later the book — that detailed the real-life story this film is based on. Two of the other writers are Stephen Chiin and Jason Smilovic — the former hasn’t had a credit since Another Day in Paradise twenty years ago, and the latter wrote Lucky Number Slevin somewhere in between an embarrassing list of short-lived TV shows.
The fourth writer, of course, is Todd Phillips. He’s also the director and a producer. Yes, the man who brought us The Hangover and Old School is now presenting us with a story about war profiteers. Set against the modern-day Middle East wars, no less. On the one hand, it doesn’t seem like this could be any more different from the stuff Phillips built his success on. Then again, after we got two Hangover sequels that were neither wanted nor asked for, maybe something different is what he needed.
The film is (VERY) loosely based on the real-life rise and fall of David Packouz and Efraim Diveroli, two childhood best friends respectively immortalized by Miles Teller and Jonah Hill. David is a massage therapist who had a massive falling-out with his family, and he blew his life savings on a sales enterprise that went bust. He gets back in touch with Efraim, who’s also on the outs with his family and is now making money by reselling guns and ammo purchased for cheap off of police auctions.
And then the two of them get into business by scanning defense contracts. To present a gross oversimplification of what’s going on, legislative reforms dictate that anytime the military needs to purchase or sell something, they have to make the requests publicly available online. In theory, this means that anyone can sell their wares to Uncle Sam without favoritism toward any particular contractor (*coughHalliburtoncough*). In practice, of course, all the biggest and most lucrative contracts go to the most well-connected contractors anyway.
But here’s the kicker: Not all of the contracts are huge. There are plenty of smaller supply requests out there, so small that the bigger contractors don’t want to bother with them. To paraphrase how Efraim explains it, these aren’t really slices of the pie so much as they’re mere crumbs. But because we’re talking about the Pentagon here, those “crumbs” are still worth thousands or even millions of dollars.
Thus David and Efraim found the company of AEY, Inc. (If you’re wondering what the letters stand for, don’t ask.) Together, the two of them work their way up from nothing to close increasingly lucrative deals with the Pentagon. All of this culminates in a $300 million deal that naturally goes awry in spectacular fashion.
If you’ve seen any other rags-to-riches crime dramas, you know pretty much exactly what you’re getting. We start out with the hard-working and good-hearted kid who wants to be something greater (that would be David). We’ve got the mentor/partner who shows him so many ethically gray shortcuts to getting rich quick (Efraim, in this case). Cue the montage of party scenes, flashy cars, big houses, bottomless cocaine, etc. Go from there to our protagonist questioning what he’s becoming, there’s a massive event that threatens to undo everything, everyone goes to jail, and our protagonist starts over with a clean conscience. Oh, and let’s not forget the character who serves as the protagonist’s conscience — in this case, that’s David’s girlfriend (Iz, played by Ana de Armas), who quickly becomes pregnant and gives birth to their daughter as the film unfolds.
We’ve already seen this same kind of story plenty of times, just in the last few years (the comparisons to Wolf of Wall Street are especially easy, given Jonah Hill’s involvement). But what really makes this film stand out is Todd Phillips.
Between this and The Hangover, Phillips has shown a remarkable talent for making smart movies about stupid characters. It’s fascinating how he can craft characters who make for compelling protagonists in spite of or even perhaps because of how completely unlikeable they are. In this case, the two main characters of War Dogs are so much fun to watch precisely because they are the smartest idiots you could ever hope to meet.
This is a movie all about ego, in which two young schmucks are dealing with international politics, millions of dollars, and enough weaponry to literally invade a country, yet they’re just barely smart enough and scrappy enough to convince everyone — themselves included — that they’re totally in control and not the least bit in over their heads. As such, the humor in this film stems from the huge and dangerous stakes our main characters are playing for, in addition to their flamboyant and rude shows of self-importance and everybody else asking just who the fuck these two think they are.
Naturally, the most prominent case in point is Efraim. Hill plays the character as a greedy and immoral bastard who’s nonetheless a born salesman because he’s tremendously gifted at telling people what they want to hear. This is because Efraim is a pathological liar who can’t be trusted to care for anybody except himself, and David takes way too long to figure that out. Moreover, Efraim seems to have a very particular view of what the world is, how it should be, and what he should be getting. And anything outside of that vision has to either be destroyed or disregarded. It’s pretty much guaranteed that if Efraim doesn’t get his way, he’s going to lash out in such a way that he’s going to try and break something. Or even seriously hurt someone.
Of course, a huge part of Hill’s performance is in how he acts off of Miles Teller, and the two of them show phenomenal chemistry throughout. It helps tremendously that David himself is a bright young man with incredible drive who tends to get himself in way too deep over his head in spite of his good intentions and intelligence. After his previous roles in The Spectacular Now, Whiplash, and even the Fantastic Four remake that we’ve already agreed to pretend never happened, this kind of character has been quite thoroughly established as Teller’s wheelhouse. And he plays it well, no doubt about that.
Elsewhere in the supporting cast, we’ve got Kevin Pollak as a dry cleaning mogul who invests some seed money into AEY. He’s pretty much entirely wasted, I’m sorry to say. Bradley Cooper (also a producer) gets maybe five minutes of screen time, but he makes every second count. Cooper is quite clearly playing the man that David and Efraim only think they are, and he’s more than cool enough to make it work. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Shaun Toub and JB Blanc, both of whom get small yet memorable roles as Middle Eastern characters. But by far the MVP of the supporting cast is Ana de Armas, who takes a regrettably flat character and does a surprisingly good job with the role. Here’s hoping we see more of her soon.
So what we’ve got here is a film with a smart sense of comedy, able to portray our main characters in dangerous and morally grey situations and leverage that into comedy. The performances are all good, the chemistry between the two main characters is on point, and there are more than enough crazy moments to spice up the boilerplate structure. There’s really nothing wrong with this film… save only for one major problem. And it’s a doozy.
The characters in this film trade millions and millions of taxpayer dollars. Our protagonists are distributing supplies to prolong a massively unpopular war that David vocally despises. We see billions of American dollars that were confiscated from Saddam Hussein. Dozens of warehouses in Albania packed to the brim with weapons and ammo, all of which were left to rust when the Cold War ended. Hell, even when the film opens, David’s voice-over tells us point-blank that all war is about economy.
All of this implies that there’s some greater point to be made. Yet the film stops just short of making that point. Ultimately, the film has nothing new to say about war in general, our current Middle East wars in particular, or our relationship with guns.
There are plenty of things that try our characters’ conscience, but they’re pretty much entirely legal quandaries. Either that or David is worried about lying to his girlfriend. In all the many discussions about which laws or international treaties are being broken, nobody ever once talks about the lives that are at stake here. The characters are buying and selling weapons that could be used to kill hundreds of people and further prolong a war that’s already the longest in our nation’s history, and that point is never once refuted or addressed. Considering the subject matter of the film, that’s a pretty big fucking blind spot.
Then again, if the characters are this vocal in their disregard for international law, I suppose their complete lack of respect for ethics and the value of human life could be considered a given.
War Dogs is definitely smarter than most comedies in the marketplace, and that counts for a lot. To wit, I’d rather watch this film two or three more times than see the trailer for Why Him? ever again. Unfortunately, there’s a sense that the movie should have been a lot smarter. The subject matter is ripe for all sorts of timely and provocative statements about war, weaponry, international politics, and so on, plus the characters and filmmakers were all clearly more than intelligent enough to go there. Couple this with a regrettable lack of screen time for such sturdy talents as Kevin Pollak and Bradley Cooper, and there’s a definite sense of untapped potential.
I’m not really sure how to recommend a film that’s too intelligent to be a mindless comedy and too dumb to be a meaningful crime drama. All of that said, the film is definitely funny and well-acted enough that I can give it a recommendation. Might want to wait for home video, however.