War Dogs

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday August 19, 2016

Miles Teller and Jonah Hill star in 'War Dogs'
Miles Teller and Jonah Hill star in 'War Dogs'  (Source:Warner Bros. Pictures)

Guy flicks have various permutations and genres, among which two of the most tried and true (if tired) run something like this: There's the comic buddy movie in which two clueless guys stumble into an unlikely adventure replete with misfiring sexcapades and humor built around cuss words and awkward situations; then there's the testosterone drama in which run-of-the-mill dudes (or bros, if you prefer) stumble into a potentially lethal situation, only to forge forward despite hazards to life, limb, marital relations, and legal status because there's a whole lotta money to be made.

Somewhere in between these stock templates falls the true story of David Packouz and Efraim Diveroli, childhood best friends who more or less back into a career as arms dealers, only to find that skirting (and even breaking) the law is a sometimes hair-raising, but temptingly profitable, shortcut to success.

Miles Teller plays David, and his intense, skeptical presence is just what's needed for the character, a man who is corrupted, inch by inch, by the intoxicating prospect of not having to scrape by. Jonah Hill is bonkers as the edgier, even thug-like Efraim, a guy whose daring stems either from clueless bravado or stone-cold sociopathic calculation.

It's Efraim, of course, who first makes his way into the arms business, by way of nine sales of confiscated guns acquired at police actions -- an easy way, evidently, to build up a respectable nest egg. Having gained entree to the world of online weapons sales, Efraim finds his way to a Pentagon-run website where bids are solicited for military weapons and other gear. By the time the strapped David -- financially sunk by a disastrous stab at setting up his own business, and facing parenthood with his girlfriend Iz (Anna de Armas) -- joins Efraim in his business dealings, Efraim has made a few connections and gained enough experience to start navigating in the shady demimonde of arms dealing.

Their first really big deal is a sale to the U.S. military -- a shipment of Berettas desired by an Army captain looking to arm his men while on a tour of duty in Iraq. International legislation presents seemingly insurmountable logistical problems, but the straight-ahead Efraim charges in where anyone in his right mind would fear to tread -- at least, not without body armor -- and after a harrowing brush with catastrophe the two manage not only to keep their fledgeling company alive and their own skins intact, but made a tidy sum as well.

Now comes the truly big action: A contract from the U.S. government to more or less equip all of Afghanistan for the next few decades. Through a series of improbable coincidences and connections, the pair manage to land the contract, which is worth hundreds of millions of dollars, in no small part thanks to a timely association with an infamous arms dealer named Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper). This is a professional so deeply mired in the business that, Efraim declares, he sold the rope they used to hang Saddam Hussein. He also, it turns out, needs some legally unencumbered business partners, and this pair of neophytes fit the bill quite nicely.

Off to the arms races they go, though it means having to forge an entire business history, with ledger books and all, that will stand up to the vetting process. With a little forgery under their belts, what's to stop the fellows from cooking up equally creative solutions to other problems that arise along the way?

The story is more than serviceable enough -- it's true, for one thing, or at least tru-ish, though the story's pieces feel a little milled and shaped and there are plenty of gaps that are simply slicked over with a little narrative varnish. But for a true story, it also feels terribly formulaic, especially when it comes to the character dynamics: Efraim's party-boy ways alternate with his "Sopranos"-caliber temper, and his business acumen sits uncertainly next to his deficient social skills.

David, meantime, writhes under the withering disapproval of Iz, who scolds him time and again for his lack of transparency. David's defense is that he doesn't tell her certain things to spare her worry, but they both know the score: David is so intent on lying to himself about what he's doing that he's incapable of telling Iz the truth even if he wants to. All this is so threadbare that you just have to wonder how it's possible these characters, with their thin motives and lack of dimension, could be based on actual people. Or are real people -- even arms dealers and the women who love them -- really that venal and boring?

The film, as if sensing these flaws, places its bets on the story, which has its strong points as noted, but also suffers from a certain lack of focus and originality. The guys like to talk about "Scarface" -- the Al Pacino version, a favorite from their youth -- and the film tips its hat to that movie, too, even though "Scarface" was about the drug trade and the references don't plug neatly into this tale of guns and ammo. But there are other hues and vibrations haunting this film as well, and the specter of "Miami Vice" manifests itself here and there, usually at inopportune moments, to suggest that this is neither comedy nor drama, but rather a straight-faced farce.

The film's structure -- also lazy and well-grooved, with a tense opening scene, a long flashback, endless voiceovers to explain what's going on, and then a watershed moment that tips everything over into the realm of the easily digestible morale -- feels farcical, too, at bottom, and mismatched with its ambitions (or what you assume ought to be its ambitions, at any rate). But what can you expect when you have Bradley Cooper wearing Coke bottle eyeglasses that magnify his eyes and spouting lines like, "I'm not a bad man, but sometimes I have to ask myself what a bad man would do"?

In a similar vein, this isn't a bad movie. It is, in fact, rather fun (though not as fun as it ought to be), even though it's also slight and forgettable. But you do sense that it's a film that asks itself what a bad movie of a certain sort -- a 1980s action flick with more vibrant strains of action to it, for example -- would look like in 2016, and then sets out to replicate the imagined effect. Unfortunately, it feels like the best version of this movie got lost not only between genres, but also between concept and execution... or, perhaps, between the reality of its gristly source material and the gloss of its Hollywood production.



Efraim Diveroli :: Jonah Hill
David Packouz :: Miles Teller
Iz :: Ana de Armas
Henry Girard :: Bradley Cooper
Ralph Slutsky :: Kevin Pollak
Security Guard :: Steve Lantz
Massage Client :: Gregg Weiner
Singer at Hilldale Home :: David Packouz
Hilldale Home Manager :: Eddie Jemison
Rosen :: Julian Sergi
Marlboro :: Shaun Toub


Director :: Todd Phillips
Screenwriter :: Stephen Chin
Screenwriter :: Todd Phillips
Screenwriter :: Jason Smilovic
Producer :: Mark Gordon
Producer :: Todd Phillips
Henry Girard :: Bradley Cooper
Executive Producer :: David Siegel
Executive Producer :: Brett Ratner
Executive Producer :: Scott Budnick
Executive Producer :: Bryan Zuriff
Cinematographer :: Lawrence Sher
Film Editor :: Jeff Groth
Original Music :: Cliff Martinez
Production Design :: Bill Brzeski
Art Director :: Jay Pelissier
Art Director :: Jon Carlos
Set Decoration :: Danielle Berman
Costume Designer :: Michael Kaplan
Casting :: John Papsidera

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.