At first glance, Todd Phillips (The Hangover) might not seem like the most obvious choice to direct a film about a pair of international arms dealers. But when those international arms dealers happen to be a couple of twenty-something stoners from Miami who manage to bullshit their way into a lucrative government contract, suddenly Phillips seems like exactly the sort of director who should be at the helm, and War Dogs turns out to be the best film of his career.
It’s the mid-2000s, and David Packouz (Miles Teller) is working a dead-end job as a massage therapist while dreaming of starting his own business, selling high-quality bedsheets to nursing homes. A funeral for a high school classmate reunites him with his best pal from childhood, Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), who David is shocked to discover is making an absurd amount of money by filling small-time arms contracts for the United States military. Judging by the expensive clothing and the wad of cash that Efraim flashes at every opportunity, business seems to be booming – in fact, Efraim is currently in the market for a partner, and who could be more trustworthy than the kid he grew up with?
David initially balks at the offer – he and his pregnant fiancée (Ana de Armas) are staunch opponents of the war – but Efraim’s persuasive nature is one of the biggest reasons for his success. “It’s not about being pro-war, it’s about being pro money,” he tells David, and before long the duo are spending late nights poring over requisition orders and contacting international suppliers to fulfill contract after contract. Once the money begins rolling in, the party never stops: Efraim and David move into the same luxury waterfront apartment building, and even buy Porsches with matching license plates that read “guns” and “ammo.”
The future looks almost impossibly bright when David and Efraim score the deal of a lifetime, one that promises a payout upwards of $30 million – if they can somehow manage to deliver on a volume that’s far more than what they’re accustomed to handling. But an endless parade of complications, along with Efraim’s increasing paranoia and insatiable greed, threaten to derail the entire thing – and that’s before the boys run afoul of their new partner, a shady black market broker (Bradley Cooper) who also happens to be on a terrorism watchlist.
As the “hero” of War Dogs – if there is such a thing – Teller once again turns in a solid performance that plays directly to his strengths. He’s got a natural charm and a certain likability, and even when his character is making a series of boneheaded decisions, he still cuts an empathetic figure. Hopefully this role will remind audiences that before he was popping up in Fantastic Four and the Divergent series, he was getting rave reviews for films like Whiplash and The Spectacular Now.
But if Teller is the foundation of War Dogs, then Hill is the obscenely opulent structure built atop that foundation, playing Efraim as a ruthless, despicable caricature of Wolf of Wall Street‘s Donnie Azoff. With his slicked-back hair and gold chains, his endless obsession with money and power, and his complete disregard for anyone other than himself, he’s precisely the sort of movie villain that we love to hate. It’s one of Hill’s strongest performances to date, a loathsome megalomaniac with an undeniable magnetism that draws us closer, even though we’d rather be anywhere else.
Based on the true story that was first reported in a lengthy Rolling Stone piece by Guy Lawson (and again in his book, Arms and the Dudes), the engrossing subject matter of War Dogs does an admirable job offsetting the film’s biggest shortcoming: humor, or a distinct lack thereof. Granted, there are a handful of truly funny moments sprinkled throughout the two-hour running time, but given our current sociopolitical climate, there’s something painfully unfunny about watching Hill’s character casually firing an assault rifle in the parking lot of his pot dealer’s apartment building, or listening to his character lament his inability to receive a blowjob because he’s currently stranded in a Muslim country.
Much like the aforementioned Wolf of Wall Street, part of the appeal of War Dogs is watching these charismatic white collar criminals revel in their incredibly lavish lifestyles – the likes of which most of us will never experience – and counting the minutes until it all crumbles around them. We know that David and Efraim are doomed from the start, and there’s a certain satisfaction that comes along with watching them fail. Phillips is keenly aware of this, but he also understands that these types of stories are less about the destination, and more about the journey itself. And in that regard, War Dogs is a hell of a ride.
The fascinating fact-based subject matter and Jonah Hill's electric performance offset the film's frequent attempts to cull humor from situations that just aren't funny. It's still an excellent offering from director Todd Phillips, but a more balanced tone could have turned it into something even greater.