When you hear the name Todd Phillips what do you think of? Most likely it's his hit comedy trilogy, The Hangover, one of the most successful R-rated franchises ever. Audiences really loved the first one, not so much the all-too-similar sequel, and REALLY HATED the final movie, which was slower, darker, and considerably less funny. Phillips was trying to show a different side to all of the partying and boozing and nobody wanted any of that. It was almost like Phillips was in training for what he really wanted to be doing.
That movie is War Dogs, which is a lot like The Hangover Part 3 in that it uses the cover of comedy as a lure for a walk on the seedy side. From the ads and trailers you probably think it's a wild romp through the world of major arms dealing, and you'd be right, but this is really a movie about the nature of friendship and how greed can rip that apart. All done with a snazzy flourish, of course, because that's how we like stories depicting the corruption of the American Dream. Much like Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street or Michael Bay's Pain & Gain, this hyperkinetic real-life tale boils down to dudes just being dudes.
The entertaining duo of Miles Teller and Jonah Hill play Dave and Efraim, two "regular" Florida guys who, rather remarkably, become the biggest arms dealers for the United States military, scoring contracts in the hundreds of millions of dollars. How in the world did that happen? It's not like scoring a school lunch contract with the government. Like most of these stories it begins small, with Dave a struggling but well-meaning guy looking to keep a roof over his head and that of his girlfriend, Iz (Ana de Armas), who recently became pregnant. He's barely scraping out a living as a licensed massage therapist, while a get-rich-quick scheme to sell high quality bedsheets to nursing homes dies quickly because "nobody cares about old people".
What do people really care about? Guns. Efraim, Dave's childhood best friend, has been selling them online out in California. He's made a lot of money and a lot of enemies, including those within his own family. Personalities don't get much bigger than Efraim's, he's constantly "on", acting every bit like a wannabe Scarface, who happens to be his idol. Now he's on his own, bidding on smaller military contracts, the "crumbs" as he calls it, and still making serious cash. But he needs help from someone he can trust, and that's where Dave comes in.
While the promise of big money is an obvious attraction, what's interesting is the moral gymnastics Dave uses to convince himself this is a good idea. It's ten years ago at the height of the War on Terror, and Dave is firmly against the war; so is his wife. So cashing in on the fighting isn't something he thinks he can do. It's obvious what the real convincer is, though, and it's excitement; a break from a dull life of following orders It isn't long before Efraim, Dave, and all of their fledgling company AEY Inc. are getting bigger contracts, and with that more money. In one of the coolest early scenes we see a breakdown of the $17500 cost to outfit a single soldier. All of those individual components have to come from somewhere, and that's where guys like Efraim and Dave come in. But it's not easy; they have to follow U.S. regulations and obey certain laws while sourcing from countries that may not have similar rules. Sometimes that means getting in bed with some nasty people, like those on the Terrorist Watchlist.
Few can play a complete a-hole better than Hill, and his Efraim is a spray-tanned, slick-haired riot. If Teller's Dave is one-dimensional in his naiveté, Efraim is far more complex than he appears to be. With his outrageous howl of a laugh and gangsta attitude Efraim's chronic selfishness and thirst for danger energizes the film's funniest bits, like when they drive a truck full of weapons through Baghdad's "Triangle of Death". Any rational person would be horrified, but Efraim and Dave see it as another notch on their belt. The final act can't keep up with the momentum of the earlier acts, and the friction between the duo is rushed and anticlimactic. Nor do the scenes with Dave and Iz connect on any level, which may have to do with him being such a cardboard character. That's not to say Teller is bad; he's actually quite good but doesn't get nearly as much to chew on as Hill.
Is there a moral to this story that Phillips and his co-writers hoped to impart? If so it's lost in a hail of bullets and one-liners, and that's not such a bad thing. We already know that war profiteering is terrible and that our government is complicit, mostly through sheer incompetence. Why beat a dead horse? Or perhaps more accurately; why load an empty clip?
Rating: 3 out of 5