I’m fairly certain that the lesson to be learned from the new Todd Phillips (THE HANGOVER trilogy) film WAR DOGS is that in order to have the maximum amount of fun as an arms dealer, it’s best not to get caught up in the details. That is a hard, ruthless truth that David Packouz (Miles Teller) and Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill, really channeling the character he played in THE WOLF OF WALL STREET) learned a few years ago when these childhood pals landed a $300 million weapons deal aimed at arming the Afghan military, putting them in very real danger of either being caught trying to cut a few corners or worse.
Based on a real story (captured extensively by Rolling Stone writer Guy Lawson in his article “Arms and the Dudes”), WAR DOGS begins promisingly as a profile of two very different men. Packouz is a masseuse for rich clients, some of whom expect a little more than a simple rubdown, while Diveroli is a career dealmaker, but usually of fairly small-scale things. At the funeral of a mutual friend, Efraim schools David on the weird weapons-dealing loophole that allows virtually anyone to bid on various-sized deals for the U.S. military. Rather than bidding on giant defense contracts, the boys focus on multiple smaller deals whose value adds up over a relatively short time. Bankrolled by the owner of a chain of dry cleaning businesses (Kevin Pollak), everyone makes out like bandits. For once, David is able to provide for his wife (Ana de Armas, from KNOCK KNOCK), who is expecting their first child. She’s mad because he lies to her, at first, about where the money is coming from. But once he comes clean, she seems okay with these shady dealings.
As the story allegedly goes (the screenplay comes from Phillips, Stephen Chin and Jason Smilovic), one day the team stumbles upon a major military contract that might just be within their price range (the previously mentioned $300 million deal), and by unintentionally underbidding their closest competitors, they get the deal and the headaches of making it happen that a larger firm might easier avoid. To finalize the deal, they call in a blacklisted dealer named Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper), who’s on a terror watchlist and just happens to know where hundreds of millions of AK-47 rounds are stored in Albania. Naturally, there are even more complications, and it doesn’t take long for panic to settle in, and the boys (mostly Efraim) turn on each other, just as the U.S. government starts taking a closer look at their records.
Some have said that WAR DOGS hits so many familiar beats that nothing about it feels new or original. That criticism hardly seems relevant, since so few films released in a given year feel completely original. Working within a formula is fine, if you can find ways to coax and maneuver through a familiar plot with a few new tricks up your sleeve. I suspect that the real guys were even more douchey than the ones portrayed in this movie, and I wish we’d gotten a real taste of that. Granted, the story might not work well with an audience if you absolutely loathe the lead characters, but Teller and Hill are gifted enough performers that they likely could have made us love to hate these two without much effort.
The bigger issue is that WAR DOGS feels the need to foreshadow every last snafu these two face. “Hey, this might be a problem for us later,” “Don’t worry about it; everything will be fine,” and then that original thing becomes a problem. But the biggest issues they face are often simply the result of their amateur status is the gun-running trade. Many of their greatest triumphs often happen by accident or despite their idiotic way of charging into a situation like children. Teller as Packouz seems intent on getting better at his job, but Efraim never stops being reckless and self-destructive. (Seriously, how much coke does one man have to do before you understand that he’s not reliable?)
Director Phillips moves us quickly from scene to scene, from deal to deal, expecting us to laugh at the wacky exploits of these clowns putting weapons in the hands of, well, anyone who can afford to buy them. And yes, sometimes these moments are funny. Hill’s comic timing and delivery are as sharp as they’ve ever been, and his powers of reading the situation and manipulating it are a wonder to behold. WAR DOGS is far from a complete failure, but I found myself with an empty feeling in my soul after witnessing so much awful behavior. I don’t have to like a character to enjoy the movies he’s in, but I need to find something compelling or interesting about them. Give me something to care about. If these two had been blown away an hour into the film, I wouldn’t have felt any different than I did by the end of this two-hour exercise in narcissism. No deal.