War Dogs, the new comedy film by The Hangover director Todd Phillips, tells the story of David Packouz and Efraim Diveroli. In 2007, barely out of high school, the pair bagged a $300 million contract from the U.S. government to supply allied forces in Afghanistan and embarked on a career as international arms dealers.
Starting in Miami, we see David (Miles Teller) trying and failing to make it as an entrepreneur. Down on his luck, he meets with his old school friend Efraim (Jonah Hill), who’s an overweight ultra-confident huckster with a love of flashing his wealth and isn’t shy about its dubious origins. David is of course instantly drawn into his orbit.
Even if you don’t know the story of the youthful arms dealers, War Dogs’ plot will feel familiar – it’s one we’ve seen in films from Goodfellas to The Wolf of Wall Street. Ordinary but charismatic guys become fed up of the dull drudgery of the life of a working stiff, and decide to do something extraordinary (and usually illegal) as a way of obtaining riches and a life of glamour.
Remarkably Efraim and David’s actions, initially at least, are not criminal. The swift escalation of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan left the Americans in need of arms for their local allies quickly, and Efraim and David’s unscrupulousness and daring leave them in a position to provide them.
There’s a great, darkly comic tale about loudmouth American capitalism meeting the military industrial complex here, but War Dogs doesn’t get close to doing it justice.
Firstly, the film seems to be obsessed with setting up its two leads as the unacceptable face of the Millennial generation – privileged kids who’ve watched a few rap videos and too many mafia films and decided they’re Tony Montana.
David is supposed to be the one we root for – the nice guy of the pair with a pregnant girlfriend Iz (Ana de Armas). But despite Teller’s burgeoning leading man talents, there’s not much he can do with a script whose first part sees his character preaching about himself in voice-over. Hill is deliciously over-the-top as Efraim, but the character is so vile that he verges on a parody of the obnoxious, entitled American.
When we do leave Miami and see the pair doing ever more dangerous arms deals and braving war zones to ensure they deliver the goods things improve – but not by much. The film’s trite take on the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan is encapsulated by the cliches spouted by Efraim and David about the business of war. Words that were edgy coming from Michael Moore in 2004 have less impact from the mouths of wannabe gun runners over a decade later.
Another problem is that despite War Dogs being based on a fascinating and darkly funny true story, quite often its scenes feel completely unbelievable. The real life Efraim had well documented problems with drug addiction, but a scene in which he and David arrive for a meeting with U.S. government officials stoned beyond coherence makes what may well have been a real event seem so implausible that any comic potential is lost.
Inevitably, Efraim and David’s hubris sees them take on one deal to many, and things begin to unravel – with the film at least providing a few laughs as the pair come to realise they’re not the weapon dealing masterminds they thought they were.
In mitigation, Phillips’ direction is steady and the film’s style, which combines the broad comedy of The Hangover series with a classic soundtrack, makes for some enjoyable moments. The few laughs that are had are from Hill’s performance as his odious buffoon of a character, while Bradley Cooper is menacing and sleazy as a bigger time arms mogul the pair encounter as they aim to conquer the business.
But War Dogs offers little substance or original humour in its almost two hour running time. Ana de Armas is largely sidelined as David’s girlfriend and the whole thing seems like an attempt to transplant a well-worn plot over a story which had far greater potential.
Phillips is undoubtedly a talented filmmaker, as his movies’ box office takings will attest, but in War Dogs he seems to have misjudged his subject matter.
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