The tired old adage goes “truth is stranger than fiction,” but in the case of Todd Phillips‘ War Dogs, the truth is more interesting than fiction, too. Based on a lengthy and fascinating Rolling Stone article by Guy Lawson from 2011, the movie distills an interesting and complex case of a couple of young guys from Florida who became major international arms dealers—dealing to the U.S. government during the George W. Bush administration—into a pseudo-flashy crime dramedy where the only stakes seem to be whether or not they get as much money as they hope to.
War Dogs stars Miles Teller as David Packouz, a weed-smoking massage therapist who dreams of making it big. He sinks his whole life savings into super high-end sheets that he unsuccessfully attempts to sell to nursing homes and basically hits an impasse, even though he has a very good looking and super understanding girlfriend (Ana de Armas), a staple stock character in this kind of movie. He eventually reunites with his childhood friend, a good-for-nothing con artist named Efrain Diveroli (Jonah Hill) who tells David all about his new business venture of selling artillery to people, eventually finding a website where the government contracts third parties to supply arms under the table to war-torn areas, specifically Iraq and Afghanistan. Naturally, David jumps in, even though he has to hide it from Girlfriend. (The character’s name is Iz, but I’m just going to call her Girlfriend because that’s all she is to the story.)
But even though the movie makes it seem very easy and that the money rolls in pretty quickly, the constant narration by Teller lets us know that it isn’t actually very easy. Their first big score entailed them having to go to Jordan and physically drive a truckload of Beretta handguns into Baghdad in order to keep from being put on the U.S. Army shit list. Later, they get a major contract that requires David to spend a great deal of time overseeing an operation in Albania, putting his relationship with Girlfriend and Baby Daughter under a huge strain, while the increasingly paranoid Efrain tries to screw over everybody, regardless of the consequences.
This movie is trying so hard to be The Wolf of Wall Street but without any of the panache that story had. It’s another “coupla douches get rich doing illegal stuff” story, but it doesn’t work, weirdly because it’s afraid to make Teller’s character reprehensible in the least. He’ll profit from back-alley arms deals, but he’s still a good guy at heart, and he really wants to be there for Girlfriend even though he lies to her all the time. By contrast, Hill’s character is as disgusting and reprehensible as they come, to the point that you’re surprised Teller was ever involved with him in the first place. The filmmakers went out of their way to make him physically grotesque also, even though the real Diveroli looked a lot more like Miles Teller than the real Packouz did.
I also noticed a strange pattern emerge because of this movie. It was produced by Warner Bros. and Ratpac, the same companies behind Suicide Squad, and I couldn’t help but notice a lot of the same issues. While War Dogs isn’t as frenetically disjointed as Squad, it still feels like a Band-Aid was placed over structural problems, here in the form of the narration which tries to be edgy and funny like Wolf or Goodfellas or Fight Club but ends up being just a series of explaining the plot in lieu of showing it. Further, the film is packed with wall-to-wall pop music, most of the cues being incredibly obvious (“Fortunate Son” is used when the Army comes in during a tense moment, the same as was done in Suicide Squad) and then suddenly becoming part of the scene, on a radio or something, which draws attention to them further. I feel like Warners has a “we’ll fix it in post” problem that goes way beyond comic books. (For the record, I enjoyed watching Squad a lot more than Dogs.)
War Dogs isn’t awful. There’s a couple of good chuckles and a couple other quite tense moments. The film looks quite good and most of the scenes during their first big desert gun-run work very well. But overall this movie feels like an attempt by director Phillips, usually a director of broad comedy, to do a ripped-from-the-headlines story about how corrupt the government can be, and one can’t help but draw comparisons to Adam McKay’s The Big Short. But it lacks any of the skewering social commentary of that film and instead tries to make us sympathetic for a pair of idiots who made a lot of money and then got arrested.
Image: Warner Bros