THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
There are two versions of War Dogs to be made: the dumb version and the smart version. Fortunately, they made the smart version. You might reasonably expect the dumb version. The director is Todd Phillips, best known for raunchy/silly comedies such as Old School and The Hangover. Nothing in his filmography thus far would indicate that he'd have any interest in making a serious (albeit darkly funny) movie about arms dealing. That is, however, exactly what he's made. War Dogs may look like a dumb “bros with guns" comedy on the surface, but it's more intelligent and probing than that.
Based on true events, the film tells the story of David Packouz (Whiplash's Miles Teller), a young man who works as a massage therapist. Desperately in need of more money to support himself and his pregnant wife (Ana de Armas), David takes a job working with Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), the long-lost best friend who has just re-materialized into his life. Efraim is a slick, smooth-talking entrepreneur with a fairly ingenious hook: he sells arms to the United States government. There are some ethical gray areas to this business, but David happily jumps on board. Together, they negotiate a deal to sell weapons to the Army in Iraq, and later they manage to secure a $300 million Pentagon contract to arm American allies in Afghanistan. Bradley Cooper plays a more established dealer who helps them gain access to a stockpile of goods.
The most fascinating thing about War Dogs is the way it gives you a peek behind the curtain of the shady world of arms dealing, as well as the uncomfortable manner in which the government gets ahold of weapons. Efraim discovers a website that allows public contractors to submit bids on a variety of needs. He knows he can't supply things like tanks, but guns and bullets (which the big boys don't want to bother with) are well within his wheelhouse. By supplying these “crumbs,” he's able to quickly get rich. Phillips and his co-writers, Stephen Chin and Jason Smilovic, structure Efraim's scheme so that it's easy to follow what's happening, even when it is complex.
War Dogs also shows how one small success can lead to bigger opportunities. After successfully fulfilling a difficult order for the Army -- one which necessitates a drive through Fallujah -- Efraim and David find that doors open, giving them the ability to take on bigger orders. The movie depicts them forging documents, skirting the law, and telling people what they want to hear in order to make these precarious deals go through. At the same time that you're absorbed by the depiction of how such operations work, you also can't shake a feeling of horror. What does it say about the system when two twenty-something dudes are able to provide the American government with millions of dollars of combat equipment?
Teller and Hill are both excellent. The former nicely shows how David is seduced by the lure of money and power. The actor additionally conveys the character's eventual unease as the gray areas become more pronounced. Hill, meanwhile, continues a streak of strong work (following Moneyball and The Wolf of Wall Street) playing the amoral guy who's cool with anything so long as it's lining his pockets. In the third act, War Dogs evolves into a story about how business and friendship don't mix. What happens is stronger because the two leads have developed their characters and the relationship between them so thoroughly. Ana de Armas provides terrific supporting work, rising above the “worried girlfriend” cliche that the lone prominent female character unfortunately is.
Although not as much of a comedy as the ads might lead one to believe, War Dogs has a very palpable dark comedic streak running right through the center. It shows two guys in over their heads who nevertheless fail upward through brazen chutzpah. They don't really take a stand on the war itself or the rationale behind it. They just know that someone is going to get wealthy off the war, so it might as well be them. More than anything, this is the theme that resonates so strongly: war is a business. Patriotism and freedom may factor in, but the bottom line is profit. If that seems cynical, War Dogs suggests such cynicism is warranted.
Real-life international arms dealing is undoubtedly even deeper and darker than the film is ready to show. Still, Phillips manages to make it substantive without becoming so heavy as to lose entertainment value. With a gripping true story and a handful of accomplished performances, War Dogs turns out to be the biggest, nicest surprise of the 2016 summer movie season.
( 1/2 out of four)
War Dogs is rated R for language throughout, drug use and some sexual references. The running time is 1 hour and 56 minutes.
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