War Dogs

War Dogs is a 2016 biographical war crime comedy film directed by Todd Phillips with a screenplay by Jason Smilovic, Stephen Chin, and Phillips. Based on a true story, War Dogs tells the true story of two twentysomething friends David Packouz and Efraim Diveroli, who become international arms dealers amid the Iraq War. War Dogs draws inspiration from article turned novel by Rolling Stone’s Guy Lawson titled Arms and the Dudes. The film stars Miles Teller, Jonah Hill, Ana de Armas, Bradley Cooper, and Kevin Pollack.

My viewing of War Dogs was not a premeditated one. A family trip to Wisconsin had to be rescheduled, so this was just something to do. I had zero expectations going into War Dogs. I was not expecting it to be good or bad. I came away from this film very impressed. Todd Phillips is known for directing The Hangover Trilogy, only the first of which was any good at all. Phillips, however, is actually a very competent director here. Although he certainly would not be my first choice for this film, he gets the job done. War Dogs was never uninteresting; the cinematography by Lawrence Sher is actually pretty impressive for a comedy film.

Teller’s David provides voiceover from the beginning of the film a la Goodfellas. The film starts out with a very dramatic and tense scene of a gun being held to his face. He says something to the effect of “Now let me tell you how I ended up here.” The film then flashes back to Miami Beach 2005. Packouz was a massage therapist making $75 an hour. (“Jerking off rich guys for money,” as Efraim would later call it.) He was a college dropout with a young, loving girlfriend named Iz. Fed up with massage therapy, David attempts to sell bedsheets to old folks’ homes, which is a comical failure. David reconnects with Efraim at a funeral for an old friend. Efraim explains that he used to sell firearms with his uncle before being ripped off and is now a “war dog” in Miami, someone who is able to sell weapons to the U.S. government without setting foot on the battlefield. With news that Iz is pregnant and with no way to make money, David agrees to work with Efraim as a war dog. There is a U.S. government website that lists all the open Pentagon defense contracts, and they’re M.O. is to get the small contracts that the big contractors pay no attention to. “Everybody’s focused on the pie, but no one cares about the crumbs,” Efraim explains. “…I live off crumbs.” David and Efraim are very successful and David is able to make a lot of money for him and Iz. David explains that the term “war dog” was meant to be derogatory, but they took pride in it. The rest of the film details the two friends’ rise and fall as gunrunners. They actually were quite good at it, and though it was clear they were in over their heads at points, they could’ve continued if it weren’t for some major snafus.

Miles Teller and Jonah Hill actually seem to mesh very well together.Teller gives a very empathetic performance as David, who was more or less influenced by his corrupt, obnoxious, arrogant, rude, slimy, but rich and successful best friend. Jonah Hill is also great. Efraim Diveroli is portrayed here as a slimy, conniving, narcissistic, uncaring jerk, and that is something Jonah Hill performs with ease, which is very surprising, because in real life, Hill seems like a pretty down to earth guy. Hangover vet and superstar Bradley Cooper makes an entrance midway through the film as international arms dealer, gangster, and possible terrorist Henry Girard. Coming away from this film, I now have an urge to see Cooper in a legitimate “bad guy” role, because he is good as Girard. I mean scary good. Girard is extremely shady and had at least one innocent man murdered during the course of the film. Cooper’s usual charm and likeability is nonexistent here. The most apt comparison I can make is Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter; Girard only has about ten minutes of screen time in the entire film, but all you can think during those ten minutes is “I would not want to be in a room with this guy.”

My major criticism with the film comes from the script. War Dogs is a comedy film as well as a biographical crime film, and it succeeds at doing both, just not at the same time. It is a very funny movie, but fails at being funny and dramatic at the same time. This movie is about arms dealing, dealing with some shady people supplying weapons of war. That isn’t very funny. What is funny is that two of the most successful arms dealers during the Iraq War for a relatively brief period were two twentysomething college dropouts with something that can just barely, if you squint, be seen as a “business plan.” That is where the good comedy comes from. There is a scene alluded to in the trailer. In this scene, our two protagonists are forced to smuggle guns from Jordan to the Green Zone due to a snafu involving international law. The guns and our two strapping young arms dealers are transported by someone claimed to be the best smuggler in all of Jordan. After a few close calls, the two fall asleep and wake up in a ruined town, the smuggler having stopped for gas. David finds a dead body in the gas station and are soon chased off by Iraqi insurgents. Efraim and David frantically try to escape in the  truck with almost no gas, nearly leaving the smuggler behind, who yells “Wait! Stop! Fallujah very bad!” David incredulously responds “You stopped for gas… IN FALLUJAH???? YOU CHEAP F*%$!!!” They narrowly escape with the smuggler attempting to pour gasoline into the tank while moving. They make it to the Green Zone and are informed they survived a trip through the Triangle of Death, and, of course, they’re reaction is “The Triangle of Death, brah? That’s amazing!” Efraim brags to one of the soldiers “We make it through all types of triangles, including your Mom!” I found the entire sequence to be very funny and not at all detracting from the narrative. My issue is that the script would force comedy at points that there was none to be found, and where it wasn’t appropriate to have any, and it ruined a lot of emotional investment in those particular scenes. Efraim, though acted well by Hill, is extremely annoying. Like no human being is this big of an annoying douchebag. I feel like this may have been intentional, but, while both Efraim and David have dramatic and emotionally filled moments throughout the film, the character of Efraim will turn the film into an over-the-top episode of Beavis and Butthead. This is a problem with the script rather than Hill, and it very much detracts from the overall narrative.

War Dogs ended up surpassing my expectations (of which I admittedly had absolutely none) and was actually a very funny as well as interesting film with a surprising level of emotional depth. The film is both bolstered and hindered by director and writer Todd Phillips; it is a good movie that would have been so much better had it not tried so hard (and occasionally failed) to be effectively comedic and effectively dramatic at different times. War Dogs is not the best movie I’ve seen this year, it’s not even close. Like its protagonists, it is a slightly above average movie which would have been so much greater if it hadn’t screwed the pooch at critical moments, bolstered by great performances from all involved. I enjoyed it, very much so, in fact. It’s getting mixed to average reviews, that I actually agree with. My recommendation is to go in expecting a solid, pretty good, but not “great” movie and you will definitely get your money’s worth.

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