Stop me if you’ve heard it before: young guys run amok in their industry, making untold fortunes while binging on drugs and consumerism, breaking the law many times over until it all comes crashing down. War Dogs takes that familiar template from The Wolf of Wall Street and relocates it to the gun-running world of Miami for a bombastic journey that takes its stylistic cues from visual savants like Michael Bay and legendary storytellers like Martin Scorsese, remixing them for an occasionally fun ride that loses steam long before the credits role. The homages to other films come fast and furious in War Dogs, beginning with an opening that finds lead David Packouz (Miles Teller) in full Goodfellas voiceover mode describing how he ended up kidnapped in Albania with a gun to his head in 2008. Skipping back a few years, David’s journey to becoming an international arms dealer begins when he locks eyes with his estranged grade-school bud Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) at a funeral. Struggling to pay the bills as a massuese and linen salesman, the down-on-his-luck David is drawn to Efraim’s success selling guns, becoming reluctantly drawn into the lucrative but morally grey world of pushing AK-47’s.
Efraim, a brash gangster wannabe who idolizes the movie Scarface and drapes himself in garish designer duds, doesn’t really need to justify his actions but tells David that their business is above-board, especially as their largest customer is the United States’ military. The details of the byzantine procurement process that allowed these two to enter such a prosperous and dangerous business are amusingly presented and rank among the movie’s best scenes, and are all the more shocking for being true (the movie was spawned from a Rolling Stone article).
It’s a compelling story as David and Efraim make bigger scores, climbing the ladder towards a massive $300 million arms deal that could make them rich beyond their wildest dreams. Strange then that director Todd Phillips (best known for The Hangover trilogy (were the second and third necessary?) and Old School) feels the need to crank up many scenes to their breaking point, with numerous needle drops of overly familiar songs and maudlin displays of emotion that take away from the core story of these two guys’ weird and unique journey.
Part of the problem is that David is presented as overly saint-like, bending the law in order to do the right thing for his pregnant wife Iz (Ana de Armas), while Efraim’s outrageous behaviour and plans get them into ever murkier territory. When the pair meets slimy super-gun-seller guy Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper in thick pedophile glasses), it’s David that voices concern about doing business with Henry while Efraim dives in. The movie tries to absolve David while demonizing Efraim, which is too simple for a story that traffics in the underworld of the business of war.
Scorsese’s best efforts revel in the unbridled excess of their subjects before showing their downfall (like the aforementioned Goodfellas and Wolf of Wall Street) and War Dogs is no different as the bros’ huge gun deal quickly goes south amidst Albanian workers, vengeful business rivals, and a growing rift between the two friends themselves. We’re meant to truly care about David and Efraim’s loosely sketched friendship and David’s deteriorating family situation, but the movie’s thin characterizations and lack of motives gives us little reason to do so.
If the accomplished Teller fails to make the underwritten David three dimensional on-screen, an outsized Hill carries much of the movie with his perverse take on the rage-filled and sleazy Efraim. Sporting a whinny of a laugh and endlessly spouting bullshit, Hill’s obnoxious Efraim is always the most interesting thing on screen and elevates the movie a few notches through sheer will alone. Shame then that movie doesn’t match that performance entirely.
War Dogs does benefit from that energy and chugs along on momentum and stylishly sunny sequences (like a tense chase from Jordan to Iraq) for the first half, while the second half gives way to dreary Albanian-set scenes and a facile comeuppance that rings hollow, especially amidst David’s seeming lack of contrition. There’s surface level fun to be had here but it seems like the story could’ve been pushed further in one of two directions, by either making these characters totally irredeemable and subsequently implicating them in the process, or by going more cerebral and diving deep into the weird loopholes that allowed these coked-up kids to score a $300 million contract with the United States government.
As it is, War Dogs takes the middle ground and ends up a shiny bauble that doesn’t stick its landing, watering down a whopper of a strange-but-true tale with rote elements that take away from the story’s central thrust. For a movie that revolves around two brash bros that worship Al Pacino’s id-gone-wild portrayal of Scarface, War Dogs’ shortcoming is an odd lack of confidence. Great final scene though.
War Dogs (2016)
Directed by Todd Phillips
Runtime: 114 minutes