The American dream smells like gunpowder in War Dogs, a story too good to be made up.
Rolling Stone told it in 2011, profiling two 20-something Miami stoners turned international arms dealers, scamming the Pentagon for millions. The story was also too good to be passed up by director and co-writer Todd Phillips, an expert detailer of masculine misbehavior after Old School and the Hangover trilogy.
War Dogs is cocked with an irreverent pedigree and loaded with the genius teaming of Jonah Hill and Miles Teller as high rolling gun runners making up everything as they go. It's a splendid mismatch, physically and tempermentally, folded into a screenplay that's only occasionally as razored as it might be.
Even after two Oscar nominations, it's shocking how terrific Hill is in this movie as Efraim Diveroli, the mastermind in the loosest use of the label. Efraim is noxious, a sweaty blob of deception and greed, impulsively rude, a schlub paying back the world he feels is his, like his idol Scarface. To know Efraim must be to despise him; to watch him played by Hill is crudely divine.
Teller is a different sort of impressive as David Packouz, slightly repackaged from the Rolling Stone piece with a distracting romantic interest (Ana de Armas) to deceive. Teller, a graduate of Lecanto High in Citrus County, doesn't need such a rote subplot for sympathy. He's got a way of making a character's reluctance appealing and acceptance more complex than just saying yes. David's risky business offers Teller lots of chances to do just that.
War Dogs is a crash-and-burn course in the economics of international arms dealing during the Bush 43 administration, when vice president Dick Cheney's former employer was revealed to be the largest supplier of U.S. weapons in Iraq and surrounding conflicts. Bids were then opened to anyone, even a hustler like Efraim, trolling the Internet for cheap war items; think penny stocks, only ammo.
Efraim's cash flashing lures David from his job as a massage therapist, and they do well with Efraim's modest business model. Then the chance pops up to land a huge government contract, with the silent partnership of the world's biggest gun runner (Bradley Cooper). He's on a terrorist watch list, which should be a red flag.
War Dogs smartly follows the dirty money and deadly merchandise of an industry determining the world. Phillips peppers the procedural elements with moments of volcanic comedy, especially a midsection when the action shifts to Jordan, and Efraim's ugliest Americanism erupts: "Tell him I'll give him a hundred bucks for those shades," he tells a child translator. "Tell him in gibberish."
From there, Ephraim and David must patch up a deal going south, driving a truckload of guns into Baghdad. Not as easy as it sounds, bringing out Phillips' better instincts for staging calamity. This time, however, there's a maturity to the disruption; no frat house or bachelor parties but a serious set of loopholes that two potheads barreled through until getting caught.
War Dogs completes an unofficial movie triptych of modern American avarice, including The Wolf of Wall Street — Phillips owes much stylistically to Martin Scorsese — and The Big Short, which this screenplay doesn't match in complexity or Faustian satire. War Dogs is, however, the funniest of the three movies, hopped up like its antiheroes and down for just about anything.
Contact Steve Persall at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.