How many more biographical crime comedy-dramas do we need to see about sun-tanned bros and their embodiment of the worst excesses of free-market capitalism?
Based on Rolling Stone reporter Guy Lawson’s “Arms and the Dudes”, War Dogs relates the “based on a true story” account of how two twenty-something small-time arms dealers ended up the recipient of a $300 million military contract to essentially outfit the Afghan army to fend for themselves; the shortcuts they took and the laws they broke to try fulfill the order, including more than 100 million rounds of AK ammo.
Directed by The Hangover trilogy’s Todd Phillips, the film succeeds in portraying David Packouz’s (Miles Teller) seemingly overnight transformation from Miami Beach massage therapist and failed bedding entrepreneur into one half — arguably the harder-working, more conscientious half — of AEY; a weapons contractors founded by his former best friend, Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill).
Teller brings his customary low-key intensity to the role of relative innocent — the film’s script, written by Phillips, Stephen Hill, and Jason Smilovic, would have us believe that before this that the extent of his lawbreaking seemingly ran to smoking a joint in his car while parked in a gated community. Hill, meanwhile, is a brash, emotionally insincere sleaze with a high, delirious giggle of a laugh and a print of an M-160-wielding Tony Montana on his office wall.
With a focus more on institutional hypocrisy than individual hedonism — there’s plenty of drugs and partying but the film doesn’t over-glamorize them — War Dogs bears a resemblance to American Hustle; a film I honestly preferred to the more obvious comparison, Wolf of Wall Street. There’s also more than a touch of Lord of War.
From the muggy shores of Miami Beach to the icy urban squalor and Cold War stockpiles of Albania, via a fictional but entertaining jaunt through Iraq (“You stopped for gas in Fallujah, you cheap bastard?!”), the film serves as a not quite scathing critique of a government desperate for cheap and quick access weapons and, unable to ethically source them itself, willing to rely on shady middlemen like Henry Girard (frequent Phillips collaborator Bradley Cooper, slick-haired and bug-eyed behind sunglasses) for the sake of plausible deniability.
War Dogs never plays into the sensationalism of its subject but understands there’s quite enough innate absurdity to be getting on with. Beside from a few valedictory moments, like an American chopper swooping down to the hilariously on-the-nose tune of “Fortunate Son” or Efraim casually breaking out a machine-gun on a suburban street, it’s also refreshingly free of gun porn.
The lack of any direct political commentary should prevent too many allegations of partisanship — Efraim claims to be against the war and David lies to girlfriend Iz (Ana de Armas) over his choice of profession — though it does somewhat take the sight off the satire. Efraim gets his share of to-the-point one-liners (“Fuck the American taxpayer!” he exclaims upon finding out that underbidding has cost them millions), but quotability is rarely the same thing as actual insight.
Sometime after the real story of AEY came to light, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform issued a report stating it “can be viewed as a case study in what is wrong with the procurement process”. War Dogs is a case study on how to entertainingly fictionalize a disturbing truth. If only it had a bit more to say about the whole mess.