Bro, do you even arms deal? Not like Miles Teller and Jonah Hill, who are at their most Jewish-frat-millionaire-iest in Todd Phillips’ War Dogs. Comparisons to Scorsese’s Wolf Of Wall Street are impossible to ignore, as a more mature Phillips directs his focus towards glaring governmental intelligence gaps, not dick jokes and crass dialogue (still present, just to a lesser degree). War Dogs is a military business thriller that’s too outlandish to believe, shining an indulgently entertaining light on corruption and political incompetence. The manifestation of “suns out, guns out” in the most literal of senses – showbiz absurdity built on truths tailor-made for Hollywood bastardization. Sounds like the perfect summer blockbuster, right?
Believe it or not, somehow, it is.
Teller stars as David Packouz, a personal masseur banking $75 an hour. That’s until ex-best-friend Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) waltzes back into his life, with a business proposal as insane as it is lucrative. In short, the US Government keeps a public list of open military contracts online, so Diveroli starts making money off the smallest, easiest contracts. While the big dogs are chasing bigger paychecks, Diveroli’s AEY Inc. turns smaller crumbs into profit – millions of dollars worth of crumbs. With a baby on the way, Packouz decides to become a part of the AEY Inc. family, and the paychecks start rolling in. Looks like Edwin Starr had it wrong, war is good for something – making leeches like Diveroli and Packouz filthy rich.
Of course, schemes can only last so long, and just like how Pain & Gain, The Big Short, and other true-catastrophe films evolve, War Dogs flies wildly out of control like a damaged Blackhawk caught in a tailspin. Bradley Cooper shows up as hot-shot dealer Henry Girard (somehow an even sleazier, slicked-back cockroach than Diveroli), things go south on a $100 million dollar deal and workplace tensions tear a friendship apart. It’s all so very expected, yet Phillips delivers a thrilling ride from start to finish. Between flashy Miami lavishness fit for a Saudi prince to life-or-death arms trade snafus, War Dogs never gets lost in achieving unintentional, satirical comedics. Phillips stays true to narrative, even when deviating down a more zany road filled with infidels and gunfire.
Teller and Hill are a dynamic money-making team, scoring points on many levels of character depth. How can two twenty-somethings work over regulated government systems for millions and millions of dollars? Easy – lowball. The boys are back in town, and their tremendous undercutting ends up saving taxpayer money, to the tune of $50 million on their “Afghan Job” (yes, AEY Inc. undercut the competition by $50 million and won). The duo represent a crooked Robin Hood gang of sorts, profiting off death while sticking it to the man – a provocative dilemma of contrasting viewpoints that somehow makes us vaguely respect two men we should vehemently despise.
Maybe that’s because Hill sells his Yamaka-wearing, submachine-gun-firing wannabe gangster almost as well as douchey Jonah Hill from This Is The End. Even his signature laugh – this dry, long-winded wheeze – works so well to signify utter lunacy. This is next-level “COME AT ME BRO” kind of material from Hill, including an early indication scene where he scares off some street thugs by firing automatic rounds aimlessly into the air. I should mention that Scarface is referenced numerous times, as shades of Tony Montana make Diveroli the slippery go-getter we absolutely love to hate-love – not even fully hate. Hill goes full bad-boy, as clown-like and shyster-y as he is astoundingly larger-than-life.
That said, Teller is no lump. Surprisingly, he’s given the role of a family-man who just wants to earn fat stacks for his wife Iz (played by Ana de Armas), and expected daughter. Packouz is the one who finds himself stuck in Albania filling an impossible order, gets threatened by gangsters and picks up on Diveroli’s wild-card instincts, which all works to subdue Teller’s typical bouts of over-confident charisma. Romance, danger, hopelessness – Teller never forgets War Dogs must remain within reach of reality, but never undersells the insanity of repacking millions of Chinese rounds with the intention of duping Pentagon officials.
Phillips knows exactly what we want to see, and how mainstream audiences digest information. War Dogs benefits from lightning-quick montages that shovel statistics/legislature down your throat while synth-rock blares, as Phillips injects excitement wherever possible. Like when Diveroli and Packouz stop for gas in Fallujah, and find themselves in a border-eyeing chase before Creedence kicks in and American Humvees chase angry rebels away (YEEE-HAWWW!). These two gun-runners are despised by pretty much everyone, lie like their pants are constantly aflame and make money in the sickest way – yet the film’s dark, no-holds-barred cynicism is what lends such a (nastily) fun atmosphere to War Dogs.
Chest bumps, lines of coke, aggressively misogynistic nightclub pickup attempts – War Dogs emphasizes the wrong kind of brotherhood during war, but has a damn good time doing so (far from the film’s intentions, as well). This is one of those “get the f*#^ out of here” true stories that needed to be retold, as Phillips proves a steady hand while navigating this sunburnt “get rich or die trying” manifesto torn from the pages of a drugged-out egomaniac’s journal. It’s wild, thrilling and too aggressive to ignore, which makes for a true-story that benefits from the glitz of Hollywood excess. Enjoy the wonders of disbelief, then remember you’re watching a real case come to life – the unforgiving punchline of public domains mixing with government spending.
The greatest punchline in War Dogs is the reality that all this actually happened, but there's still plenty more to enjoy in Todd Phillips' most mature release to-date.