War Dogs is the story of two childhood bros from Miami, David Packouz (Miles Teller) and Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), who stumble into the business of packaging and selling weapons to the United States Armed Forces. The more contracts they land, and the more money they make, the more the pair skirt the edges of illegality and corruption until their rise gives way to the inevitable fall. It’s not a spoiler to tell you that, because director/co-screenwriter Todd Phillips (who wrote the script with Jason Smilovic and Stephen Chin) follows a familiar, well-worn path in presenting a tale that could be best described as Scorsese-lite.
When we first meet thoughtful, humble David, he is launching a modest business of selling bedsheets to nursing homes while also struggling to paying the bills as a masseuse. But then David learns from girlfriend Iz (Ana de Armas) that he is going to be a father, so he desperately finds himself in the office of his old school buddy (and bong partner) Efraim, a loud, showboating jerk who claims to be making money hand over fist by buying arms on the cheap and reselling them to our boys over in Afghanistan and Iraq. Despite his own misgivings about the war and Iz’s fierce opposition to it, David gets into business with Efraim – and the viewer has a pretty good idea of what happens next every step of the way.
The problem with War Dogs (which is a heavily fictionalized adaptation of the Rolling Stone article “Arms and the Dudes” by Guy Lawson) is that Phillips seems to think he’s making another installment of The Hangover, only with the boys getting lost in Iraq and Albania instead of Vegas or Thailand. David and Efraim get into all sorts of trouble, but it’s okay because at least David is basically a good guy. Forget Efraim – he is actually pretty evil and perhaps sociopathic, but that’s okay too because he and David are so funny together. Phillips badly wants this to be his Goodfellas or The Wolf of Wall Street, but he can’t manage the tone, especially in the latter stages of the film when things take a decidedly darker turn.
The other big problem with the slack-paced War Dogs is that the characters behave as Phillips needs them to, not in any fashion consistent with what little is established about them. Teller’s David is a bland Henry Hill stand-in whose biggest issue with all this seems to be the lies that he tells Iz. Portraying the latter, by the way, is a thankless task for de Armas (Knock Knock); one minute she’s railing against David getting into the arms business, and the next she’s partying along with David and Efraim, enjoying the spoils as if her scenes were stitched together from two different movies (basically, she’s just the dutiful little woman – Phillips has little time for anything but dudes in his films).
Jonah Hill fares a bit better as Efraim and is the main reason to watch the movie: as amoral as he is, you can’t take your eyes off him because of Hill’s ability to add layers of nuance and complexity to even a role that is essentially a variation on the same part he played in The Wolf of Wall Street. His pregnant pauses, the way his eyes go blank and distant, the nervous laugh and threatening undertone that permeates even his most innocuous-sounding conversations – all are indicative of a venal, calculating devil that a better director could have made a much more devastating film out of.
But no, Phillips just wants to amble along and get the dudes in and out of some wacky hijinks, throwing some drugs, violence and an occasional gun pointed at someone’s face into the mix just to remind you that this is all actually serious business. The result is a pointless movie that is occasionally entertaining but plays mostly as a warmed-over remake of the predecessors mentioned above (by the way, the incredibly overrated The Wolf of Wall Street suffers from many of the same problems). The film has little to say about the culture that surrounded the arms business or let guys like Efraim and David get away with what they did.
But even if Phillips wanted to stay away from the politics of his story, what ultimately makes War Dogs a disappointment is that we know right from the start that Efraim is trouble, and that David is going to get into trouble by going into business with him; why then does this supposedly smart guy so stupidly follow along? Could the real-life David (the character in the movie is actually an amalgam of two people) have been as nasty a piece of work as Efraim? If he couldn’t try to make you root for at least one of the bros, that would really take the fun out of the proceedings for Phillips. And boys just want to have fun, whether it’s doing bong hits or selling 100 million high-powered bullets.
War Dogs is in theaters this Friday, Aug. 19.