Film Review: ‘War Dogs’

War Dogs
Courtesy of Warner Bros

With the 'Hangover' trilogy behind him, director Todd Phillips has made his first terrific movie for grown-ups, starring Miles Teller and Jonah Hill in a true-life tale of hip-geek arms dealers.

War Dogs,” starring Miles Teller and Jonah Hill as bushy-tailed geek scoundrels who become Internet arms salesmen, is that rare thing: a based-in-reality movie that gives you a buzz. The film just about tingles with the antic pleasure of seeing people get away with things they shouldn’t. It’s obvious that the director, Todd Phillips, has been hugely influenced by the money-fever rush and propulsive shot language of Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street,” and by the orchestrated delirium of David O. Russell’s “American Hustle” — giddy, spinning life-as-a-con-job psychodramas that show you how fraud really works, and that celebrate it, too. (They also condemn it, but only after giving the audience a rough and rowdy good time.)

Phillips borrows the bravura of Scorsese and Russell (who borrowed plenty of Scorsese’s to begin with), but he also makes it his own, merging it with his more casually mirthful, next-generation voice. “The Wolf of Wall Street” was rooted in the sleek white-collar façade of life on The Street, and “American Hustle” mined the tacky unreality of ’70s sleaze. “War Dogs” has a scruffier, more lightly disreputable vibe. It’s based on a 2011 Rolling Stone article (by Guy Lawson) called “Arms and the Dudes,” and it’s about hip hucksters who make a mountain of cash selling weapons to the U.S. military during the Iraq War. The joke, at least for a while, is that it’s all perfectly legal, because the business of national security has become…a business. The con is that these two are glorified hacker opportunists who only pretend to run a respectable company. But then, to keep it going, they have to start cutting corners, and once they start they can’t stop, since the money is just too good…

In theory, at least, everyone needs to grow up, but that has never been the case in Hollywood, where a filmmaker can get stuck forever in juvenile overdrive. Arrested development rules because it pays (at least, in the movies), and Todd Phillips, for all his wit and flash and talent, has made it the basis of his brand. Ever since his first comedy, the consciously junky neo-’80s youth bash “Road Trip” (2000), he has never looked back, churning out unabashed throwaways that were sometimes funny (“Old School”) and sometimes not (“Starsky & Hutch”), and becoming a major-league Gen-X voice with the “Hangover” trilogy.

“War Dogs” marks a key turning point for Phillips. After all these years of yocks, it’s his first true grown-up movie, and it’s a nimble, gripping, and terrific one, with plenty of laughs, only now they’re rooted in the reality of fear, and in behavior that’s authentically scurrilous. Even during his reign as king jester of the animal house, it was always clear that Phillips was a genuine filmmaker, but maybe it took the withering response to not one but two “Hangover” sequels for him to look in the mirror and say: Time to move on. Moviegoers should be glad he did. For Phillips, “War Dogs” marks the launch of what could turn out be an inspiring second-stage career. The box office should prove solid (if not “Hangover” huge), because he remains, at every moment, a rousing entertainer.

The movie puts the audience right on the side of duplicity and sleaze — and that, ironically, is the key to its moral cunning. (It teaches a lesson from the inside out.) In this case, we’re led through a looking glass of financial distress — even though the film is set a decade ago, during the administration of George W. Bush. David Packouz (Teller), in his early twenties, is a Miami Beach college dropout who works as a freelance massage therapist, a job the movie mocks, but only because it’s so wrong for him. (His big dream? To make a killing selling quality bedsheets to retirement homes.) It’s David’s good fortune to attend a funeral, where he runs into Efraim Diveroli (Hill), his middle-school yeshiva buddy. Efraim, with huge jowls and a dead-eyed gleam, looks like a bullfrog — but, in fact, he’s his own breed of reptile. He’ll say anything to anyone, but he always makes it sound as if he’s their hip-hop bro, and he has stumbled onto a money-making scheme that’s based on a piece of “liberal” government policy.

In the mid-2000s, as it came to light that the Bush administration was awarding no-bid defense contracts to conglomerates like Halliburton and Lockheed Martin, pressure mounted to make the Iraq War look a little less like a military-industrial boondoggle. So a decision was made to allow anyone to bid on military contracts. Efraim, a scrounger, has turned this into a business, acting as the middle man to sell combat hardware to the military — not major weapons systems, but what he refers to as “crumbs.” He calls his company AEY (which stands for nothing whatsoever), and he’s got a poster on his office wall of Al Pacino in “Scarface” in full machine-gun-spraying grimace. What that poster tells you is that for Efraim, this isn’t just about the money. It’s about the money, the power, the lure of vicarious aggression. It’s about hawking weapons as a signifier of cajones.

He enlists David to become his partner, and David has to overcome one ethical scruple that, at first, seems relatively minor: He and his fiancé, Iz (Ana de Armas), are against the war. But the moral conundrum at the heart of “War Dogs” starts small and then grows, like a tumor. It’s not just about the politics of war — it’s about the interpersonal worm of lying. (It’s about how military lies and personal lies mesh together.) After a while, Efraim and David stumble onto their first lucrative contract, a deal to sell Beretta handguns to a U.S. officer in Baghdad. But thanks to an Italian ruling forbidding arms shipments to Iraq, there’s only one way to make the deal work: They’ll have to ship the weapons to Jordan, then smuggle the guns across the border themselves. Suddenly, these two armchair weapons warriors have to put their badasses on the line.

Phillips, who kicks the movie along with freeze frames, chewy rock & roll nuggets like Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger,” and chapter headings carved out of the dialogue (“When does telling the truth ever help anybody?”), stages a bravura sequence in which David and Efraim show up in Jordan to execute their mission. Efraim says he doesn’t want to be the “ugly American,” but, in fact, he’s the most hilariously ugly of Americans (Efraim to child translator: “Tell him I’ll give him a hundred bucks for those shades. Tell him in gibberish”), and when the two hire a smuggler to drive a ramshackle truck 500 miles across the desert, braving checkpoints and gunfire, it’s an existential comedy of terror. The key to it all is that the two actors play it straight. David, tense and calculating, but in way over his head, is our representative, and Miles Teller has the gift of making decency magnetic. As for Hill, amazingly, he forms a direct connection to the audience even though he’s playing an irredeemable, mostly charm-free jerk who may, in fact, be a reckless sociopath. We should, objectively, be repelled by him, but in “War Dogs,” Hill, more than ever, is a true star, with a hellbent charisma that comes from deep within.

There’s a scene set in Vegas (of course!), and it’s there, at a combat expo, that our heroes meet a legendary underground arms dealer played by Bradley Cooper, whose mystique feels as formidable as it does (in a Todd Phillips movie) inevitable. He helps to set in motion their hugest deal, a contract to sell the Afghan military 100 million rounds of AK-47 ammo — which turn out to be ancient Chinese bullets stowed in decaying warehouses in Albania. By this point, the sheer insanity of the logistics are driving the action (can they repackage all that ammo to camouflage its pedigree?), and that starts to consume what’s left of David’s moral center. But Phillips, to his credit, doesn’t hit us over the head. He threads the movie’s message through every encounter, until we feel the queasiness of how lying can eat away at us. “War Dogs” lets the audience taste the lure of big easy money, and then says: That’s a hangover you have to wake up from.

Film Review: 'War Dogs'

Reviewed at AMC 34th St., New York, August 9, 2016. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 114 MIN.

Production

A Warner Bros. release of a Joint Effort/Mark Gordon Company production. Producers: Mark Gordon, Todd Phillips, Bradley Cooper. Executive producers: David Siegel, Bryan Zuriff.

Crew

Directed by Todd Phillips. Written by Phillips, Stephen Chin, Jason Smilovic. Camera (color, widescreen): Lawrence Sher. Editor: Jeff Groth.

With

Miles Teller, Jonah Hill, Ana de Armas, Kevin Pollak, Shaun Toub, Steve Lantz, Gregg Weiner, Bradley Cooper.

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  1. Bonnie Bauman says:

    This review is a joke, right? This was one of the worst movies I’ve ever sat through. It was nearly two hours of state-the-obvious moment after the other. And in case the audience still didn’t get it, there was voice over in nearly every scene. And just in case the STILL didn’t get it, at least a dozen scene title cards. Can you say lazy storytelling! The director must think his audience is just plain stupid. My favorite state-the-obvious moment was when the two main characters set fire to what was obviously the boxes of sheets. Good thing we got that close-up of the tags on the boxes just in case there was any doubt. Not only was this bad storytelling, it was boring storytelling. Both my husband and I (who often disagree) about movies had a hard time keeping our eyes open in this on. If you honestly believed what you wrote about this movie, I’ll be passing on all of your future movie reviews.

  2. patrik says:

    business is business; splendid film(War dogs), eight(from 10)

  3. Bill B. says:

    Sounds promising even though I hated The Hangover movies and for the life of me, I don’t understand the popularity of Jonah Hill.

  4. Ken says:

    “War Dogs” is great ! It’s much better than “Lord of War”. And, yes, this movie is relevant. Just read the news: They’re dealing with arms like crazy today. All countries, all nations. The war in Syria is big business for them…

  5. Ana de Armas says:

    Horrible movie. Jonah Hill’s laugh was cringeworthy. Sad to see Miles Teller and Cooper in this sh!t.

  6. Gimme a Break says:

    Read the room, guys. A movie that celebrates gun dealers…in 2016?

    Nailing the zeitgeist, bros!

  7. VarietyFan says:

    This movie is tarnished by its star Jonah Hill who uttered a homophobic slur at a photographer back in June 2014. If Hulk Hogan and Paula Deen cannot climb on back to their careers, why should Jonah Hill?

    • Hnon says:

      Except that nobody really cares… Won’t even make a mention of a dent in this movies BO.

    • Aaple says:

      Well, Hulk and Paula are racists and never backed down from their comments. Jonah apologized publicly.

      • VarietyFan says:

        Paula Deen cried to be forgiven and Hulk Hogan was remorseful for his racist comment but WWE would not take him back. Jonah Hill is still being criticized by the LGBT Community for his homophic remark even if he did apologize on Jimmy Fallon’s Show.

    • Marie says:

      “This movie is tarnished by its star Jonah Hill who uttered a homophobic slur at a photographer back in June 2014.”
      As if the public actually give a sh*t about that. It was two years ago. Move on already. Plus that was paparazzi not a “photographer”. Those vultures don’t give a sh*t about anyone but themselves. You act like Jonah ran over an old lady.

      • VarietyFan says:

        Well, the two year hateful remark is not forgotten because the movie PROVED to be a box office flop.

      • Bobby says:

        thank you Marie, for being a person with common sense who isn’t obsessed with some innocuous mistake (like the ones all humans make every day) eons ago that was mutually exclusive from his professional career. That makes you one of maybe, 14 people in the USA who still retain common sense and a sense of humour. I’m sure VarietyFan is already on Ellen Degeneres for her Usain Bolt tweet now that he / she / it has had his / her /it’s say.

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