Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Todd Phillips
Stars: Jonah Hill, Miles Teller, Ana de Armas, Kevin Pollak, Patrick St Esprit, Shaun Toub, Bradley Cooper, Barry Livingston, Aaron Lustig, J B Blanc.
Guns n bongs? “War dogs” are bottom feeders who are making money off the war effort without ever setting foot on a battlefield. This cynical look at the war in Iraq shows that the war was not about winning the hearts and minds of the local population, nor was it about bringing democracy to the region – rather it was about making bucketloads of money by profiting off the business of war. An early scene shows the cost of outfitting the average US soldier for combat duty.
Efraim Diveoli (played here by Jonah Hill) was a suave, brash, greedy and manipulative conman who had found a way to profit from the war in Iraq by landing lucrative contracts with the Pentagon. He has also managed to secure financial backing for his business from Ralph Slutzky (Kevin Pollak), who runs a chain of dry cleaning stores across Florida. But even Ralph is unaware of the rue nature of Efraim’s business.
He recruited his former high school friend David Packouz (Miles Teller), who was unhappy with his lot in life. He had a lovely pregnant girlfriend Iz (played by Spanish actress Ana de Armas), who was an outspoken critic of the war and she provides the film with its moral compass and conscience. When we first meet him, David is working as a massage therapist catering to the wealthy elderly men of Miami. He also tries to unsuccessfully sell a range of high quality bed sheets to retirement homes. When Efraim approached him to join his enterprise, David leapt at the chance to make some money. He lied to Iz about what he was up to though, and this eventually brought some tension to his relationship.
The pair are contracted to supply ammunition to the Afghan army. They get involved with Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper), a shady arms dealer who links them up with some underground connections in Albania, of all places. But the pair soon find themselves in over their heads.
This quirky mix of stoner comedy and drama proves once again that truth is stranger than fiction. If the story behind War Dogs was made up you would find it hard to believe. The story is actually based on an article written by journalist Guy Lawson and published in Rolling Stone magazine entitled Arms And The Dudes, which told the story of two twentysomething stoners in Florida who, in 2006, managed to exploit a loophole in the military armaments procurement bureaucracy and made a small fortune in selling armaments to the US military in Iraq. All military procurement contracts were listed on the internet, and Efraim would cherry pick the ones that most contractors wouldn’t touch. By picking up the crumbs that the major defence contractors wouldn’t touch he made a small fortune.
War Dogs marks something of a change for director Todd Phillips, best known for his work on gross out comedies like The Hangover trilogy, etc. Phillips cowrote the script with Stephen Chin (his first screenplay since 1998’s Another Day In Paradise) and veteran television writer Jason Smilovic (the remake of The Bionic Woman, Lucky Number Slevin, etc), and this becomes a savage satire of the pursuit of the American Dream and the downside of capitalism as well as offering a more cynical view of the war in Iraq. War Dogs will also remind many of the Nicolas Cage drama Lord Of War, in which he played an arms dealer without a conscience.
Phillips draws strong performances from his two leads. Hill in particular brings plenty of energy to his role as the thoroughly unlikeable Diveoli, but his character is hard to warm to and will keep audiences at a distance. Efraim was a huge fan of Brian de Palma’s Scarface and tries to live large and copy that gangster life style. He doesn’t let principle or friendship or business ethics stand in the way of making money, and before long the greedy and self-absorbed Efraim screws everybody involved mainly to save a few dollars off a multi-million dollar deal. Hill delivers a bravura performance full of gusto and energy and this is one of the better performances of his career. In some ways his character here will remind audiences of his work in The Wolf Of Wall Street.
Teller, who was so good in the recent Whiplash, brings a naive quality and a likeable everyman quality and innocence to his performance as Packouz, and we see most of the events from his perspective. Cooper, who also produced the film, makes the most of his small but important role as the shady arms dealer with whom our two heroes do business.
Visually Phillips has modelled his approach on Martin Scorsese’s work on The Wolf Of Wall Street, with a flashy visual style, broad palette, kinetic editing style and a semi-documentary like approach. The film is set in a number of exotic locations, from Iraq to Albania, to glossy Miami and the glitzy casinos of Las Vegas, all of which has been superbly shot by Phillips’ regular cinematographer Lawrence Sher. A fabulous soundtrack also adds a sense of energy to the material. But the film is ultimately undone by its own lack of subtlety and an air of self-importance that permeates the material. The pace also flags several times throughout the movie.