Picture this: An old sedan comes to a stop at a desolate pile of rubble in the blue-hued ruins of modern Albania. A handful of masked men leap out of the car and forcibly remove the hooded hostage who’s been flailing around in the trunk. They throw him to the ground, shove an AK-47 in his face and pull back the cloth covering his face. It’s Miles Teller. Freeze frame. Cue the voiceover: “My name is David Packouz, and you might be wondering how I got myself into this mess.”
Those aren’t his exact words (pretty close, though), but you get the idea — from its cold open to its abrupt closing line, there isn’t a single moment of Todd Phillips’ “War Dogs” that won’t make you feel as though you’ve seen this stridently American movie a hundred times already. In some respects, that’s pretty much the most damning thing that can be said about a film that’s based on a true story, because life never feels trite while you’re living it, especially not when you’re living it so loud that Hollywood has heard your story and bought the rights to retell it.
Then again, the pair of dangerously reckless kids at the center of “War Dogs” want nothing more than to feel like they are living in a movie, and that movie happens to be Brian De Palma’s “Scarface.” A lot of people have the iconic poster framed on their wall, but Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) has a giant still from the film mounted to the foyer of his office, and he looks into it like it’s a mirror. A product of an Orthodox Jewish Miami family in which the boys were traditionally forced into business the day after their bar mitzvah, Efraim grew up as a chubby kid with a demented laugh, no friends and so much ambition that he needed to share some of it in order to keep himself from going insane.
Enter David Packouz, the straight-laced narrator of this story, who happens to be Efraim’s former childhood friend as well as his future partner in crime. A dead end entrepreneur who attempts to sell nice bedsheets to retirement communities while his sparkle-eyed girlfriend (Ana de Armas, memorable in a thankless role) waits for him at home, David is the opposite of Efraim in almost every way; they only thing they share in common is a lust for money. And that’s how the two thickheaded twentysomethings wound up going into business together as international arms dealers, exploiting a government program that allowed virtually anyone in America to bid on military contracts during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And that’s also how they wound up getting in way over their heads, landing a $300 million deal that they had no hope of fulfilling unless they got… creative.
War is an economy. It takes $17,500 to equip the average American field soldier, and the Army has to pay someone for that stuff. Welcome to Earth: A matter of life and death for one person is “just business” for another. That’s how we do. And a piece of the pie can be yours if you’re hungry enough to go out there and take it.
Adapted from a “Rolling Stone” article called “Arms and the Dudes,” “War Dogs” is a familiarly giddy rise and fall saga that unfolds like a watered-down cross between “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “Lord of War” that’s been sprinkled with some of “The Social Network” for good measure. Imagine if either of those two movies had been directed by the guy who brought you “The Hangover,” and you’ll have a good idea of what’s in store for you here. Phillips, attempting a pivot from comedy to serious comedy similar to how Adam McKay went from “Step Brothers” to “The Big Short,” has delivered a multiplex joyride that’s all swagger and no substance, a rollicking good time (at least for the first half that falls on its face whenever it tries to say anything that previous movies have already said with greater impact and nuance.
As is typically the case with movies about hedonistic profiteers, the way up is a lot more fun than the way down. Not only is it a blast to watch David and Efraim drive through Iraq’s “Triangle of Death” in order to hand-deliver a shipment of pistols, but the wild sequence perfectly captures how scheming for a better life usually requires something of a death wish. And while that particular bit was shot in the deserts of California, the film gets a lot of mileage from hoofing it to Morocco and Romania (both doubling for more dangerous countries). “War Dogs,” despite its generic depictions of greed and corruption, wants you to believe that this is a uniquely American story, but these far-flung locales are the most palpable reminders that it actually happened.
Things fall apart for “War Dogs” at the same time as they do for its bumbling stoner heroes, and not even a late-game appearance by Bradley Cooper (playing a menacing arms dealer who’s defined by the seemingly bullet-proof glasses he has to wear because of his wacky astigmatism), is enough to save the movie from its downward spiral to the bottom of the American Dream. But Phillips’ broad comedy bravado serves this material well in the short run, particularly when he gives his actors space to do their thing. Teller gets the job done, but this isn’t his movie. Hill, on the other hand, is extraordinary — essentially showing us what his take on Jordan Belfort might have looked like, Efraim froths at the mouth with the killer instinct that the actor’s “Wolf of Wall Street” character lacked.
Playing the part as a sociopath who talks like a salesman, Hill forcibly denies Efraim an ounce of decency to the bitter end, a tact that only makes the character more believable. But what most fundamentally sells the performance and elevates it above chameleon-like caricature is how Hill taps into the underlying (and compellingly unspoken) loneliness of — quoth Scarface — “Never begging anyone, never trusting no one, never expecting anything from anybody.” Hill embodies everything that’s best about the film around him: He’s funny, daft and broken in a way that’s more fun to gawk at than it is to fix. In a story that’s supposedly about the payoffs and perils of taking big risks, he’s the only one who puts his money where his mouth is.
“War Dogs” opens in theaters on Friday, August 19.