The problem with WAR DOGS is that it refuses to decide what it wants to be. Jittering uncertainly between farce and melodrama, it achieves a few moments of sublime absurdity as it satirizes the business of war by hewing to, and exposing the facts of, said endeavor’s economics. Yet, when it decides to tug at the heartstrings, it fails.
Based on a Rolling Stone article by Guy Lawson, “Arms and the Dudes,” it tells the fictionalized story of how two twenty-somethings sold a multi-million arms contract to the Pentagon. By focusing on David Packouz (Miles Teller), it gives us someone to root for as the young man with no future and poor business skills stretches his ethics further and further in order to provide for his girlfriend, Iz (Ana de Armas) and the baby that is on the way. But it’s more than that. David falls under the spell, and the adrenaline rush, of making good, egged on by the SCARFACE (Pacino version, natch) obsessed Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill). He’s an old friend from middle-school newly arrived back in Miami with several conflicting versions of why he had to leave California who reminds David of how they were the bad-asses of their yeshiva, and carefully lays a plan for bringing David into his business.
Efraim’s genius is finding small government arms contracts up for bid, lowballing the competition, and raking in the cash. He’s looking for a partner he can trust to help with the workload now that things are picking up. A quick thinker who is not afraid to cut corners with a hacksaw, Efriam’s brash business decisions, and penchant for pulling an automatic weapon with insouciance when necessary, soon pay for matching Porsches, luxury condos, and a trip to Iraq’s Triangle of Death. It also means David lying to Iz, falling in with the planet’s most notorious arms dealer (Bradley Cooper), and spending way too much time in Albania.
The temptation to make a stranger-than-fiction film from this story had to be overwhelming, rife as it is with the potential for exploiting the ridiculous excesses involved, as well as the complete incompetence when it came to government oversight. I mean, two kids standing in a rusting warehouse in Tirana inspecting 40-year-old bullets to be used in Afghanistan is a black comedy that almost writes itself. And yet, screenwriters co-director Todd Phillips, Stephen Chin, and Jason Smilovic missed a golden opportunity by slipping in a hackneyed kind of domestic drama. What saves their effort from being a total loss is casting, particularly having Hill as the enigmatic Efraim.
I have written much about Hill’s sterling qualities as an actor (see CYRUS) who can keep the viewer off kilter. In any scene in any genre, his genius for unpredictability is arresting, and it has never served him better than here as showcasing Efraim’s ability to be anyone and anything to anybody, from piously observant Jew to badass gunrunner as the situation dictates. He exudes a confidence that makes us believe that HE believes what he is saying, making the sudden shifts in persona all the more impressive. There is also the subtle element of danger, because we know that while we can’t trust what Efraim is saying, we’re not sure what we can trust about him and, on top of that, the desire to hope that he’s looking out for David, at least a little.
Which is not to say that Teller isn’t also impressive. It’s his character’s narration that frames the story, and the combination of puppy dog earnestness with an amoral streak is certainly done to perfection, making David almost as interesting as Efraim. As we saw in WHIPLASH and in THE SPECTACULAR NOW, he has a flair for tortured souls fighting against themselves, and if this is not a film that lets him emote full throttle, it is still one that allows that talent to shine.
WAR DOGS may not have a great script, but it does have dynamic direction, those great performances, and a sprightly lesson about the road to hell being paved with good intentions.