Based on a true story, War Dogs is one of those stranger than fiction tales that is actually all too believable, even if director Todd Phillips has amped up the details for both dramatic and comedic effect. The core of the story is the same though: two stoner bros from Florida become arms dealers, selling increasingly large amounts of artillery to the US government until, inevitably, it blows up in their face.
The two bros in question are childhood friends David (Miles Teller) and Efraim (Jonah Hill) who are reunited at the funeral of a mutual friend. David is scraping together a living doing massages while trying to get a bed sheet business going to support his pregnant girlfriend Iz (Ana de Armas). Efraim runs a small arms dealing business, hoovering up the contracts that are too small for the big companies but still large enough to make him a millionaire.
Hill plays Efraim as a larger than life sociopath, a smooth-talking, dead-eyed salesman without an ounce of decency to him. It’s an extraordinary, career-best performance from Hill and by far the film’s strongest asset. With tacky jewellery, slicked back hair and a giant Scarface poster, he wonderfully depicts a lowlife who was just smart enough and slick enough to find a way of making copious amounts of cash. David is a different prospect: a seemingly decent guy who at least feels bad about some of the things they get involved in but is all too easily seduced by Efraim and the promise of easy cash. Teller is fine but there isn’t much to the character.
War Dogs represents a change of pace for Phillips, best known for Old School and The Hangover trilogy but here going for something more serious. His style here is a blatant attempt at aping Scorsese, clearly aiming to make the Goodfellas of gun-running. From the opening scene – a flash forward to David being held at gun point – Phillips throws in multiple freeze-frames as Teller’s voice over tells us all about these characters and their backstories. Each scene is announced with another classic rock tune, though Phillips’ ear isn’t as sharp as Marty’s, often picking the most on-the-nose tune available, like scoring the boys first trip abroad to Iggy Pop’s The Passenger.
Naturally Phillips falls short of Scorsese levels of brilliance – most do – but the film is still largely entertaining. A set-piece midway through as Efraim and David have to personally deliver a shipment of guns to an army base in Iraq, driving through the ‘triangle of death’ in the process is a standout moment. So too is any scene involving Bradley Cooper’s nicely sleazy big time arms dealer, complete with a giant pair of glasses that distort his movie star looks in an unsettling way. For the first two thirds of the film, it’s a blast to hang out with these two characters and join in on their adventures, Phillips successfully seducing us with the thrills of this life.
It’s clear he is enjoying it too and as such fails to really deliver the kind of damning indictment of a government who is all too happy to take shortcuts and look the other way when it suits them that the film could have been. It has all the trappings of a cynical morality tale but never delves deep enough to make much of a point and in the end, remains far too sympathetic towards David. He’s the lesser of two evils here but is portrayed as a hero because he at least felt bad about what he did, despite still doing it. It’s far more enjoyable and less offensive than Michael Bay’s Pain and Gain, another film that looks at the toxic side of the American dream, but ultimately War Dogs never really gets close to the drive, energy or conviction of the films it’s straining to be.