Miles Teller and Jonah Hill play a pair of childhood friends who team up to sell guns to the U.S. military during the Iraq War in “War Dogs,” a disappointing comedic drama based on Guy Lawson’s 2011 Rolling Stone article, “Arms and the Dudes.”
With his first directorial effort since closing the curtain on “The Hangover” franchise, Todd Phillips returns to his favorite themes of male bonding and poor decision-making, only this time around, his efforts earn a fraction of the laughs his previous films garnered. A classic tale of greed much like “Wall Street” and “The Big Short” that taps into audience wish-fulfillment for gaming the system, “War Dogs” certainly has a catchy premise but never quite delivers the intoxicating thrills one would expect from a depiction of the lavish lifestyle. Striving to be a spiritual successor to “Wolf of Wall Street” but falling way short, the script by Phillips, Stephen Chin (“Another Day in Paradise”) and Jason Smilovic (“Lucky Number Slevin”) is far too formulaic, with uninspired voiceover narration, a predictable story arc, and a host of stereotypical characters led by two off-putting protagonists. Much like the arms dealers at its center, “War Dogs” may succeed in selling audiences on the premise, but most will be let down by the return on their investment.
Set in Miami Beach in the mid 2000s, “War Dogs” tells the tale of David Packouz (Miles Teller), a directionless twentysomething struggling to make ends meet as a massage therapist. With a money-conscious girlfriend (Ana de Armas, “Knock Knock”), a baby on the way, and a failing side business selling Egyptian bed sheets to retirement homes, David is desperate for a get-rich-quick scheme. The answer to David’s money woes soon comes in the form of Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), a business-minded childhood friend with whom he recently reconnected. A stoner with a taste for the high life, the “Scarface” obsessed Efraim invites David to join him on his latest business venture: selling arms to the U.S. Military.
Why, you might ask, would the U.S. Military buy guns and ammo from a pair of Miami Beach stoners working out of a bare-bones apartment? As a result of backlash received for awarding too many no-bid military contracts to companies like Halliburton and Lockheed Martin, the U.S. government began an initiative enabling small businesses to make bids on thousands of modest military contracts, or the crumbs, as Efraim calls them.
After schooling David to the guns and ammo game, the budding arms dealers soon score a bid for five thousand Berettas intended for the Iraqi army, the success of which earns their company, AEY, the credibility to win more bids. Before long, the childhood friends are up and running, winning bids left and right and reaping the rewards of their illicit trade. But as the duo get deeper into the gun running game, the greediness and inherent danger of the enterprise soon sours their friendship and threatens David’s home life. When, thanks to a chance encounter with a notorious arms dealer (Bradley Cooper), the pair wins an astronomical 300 million dollar contract to outfit the entire Afghan army, it leads to some highly unethical decision-making that jeopardizes the entire operation.
Director Todd Phillips tries to impose his comic sensibility onto a story considerably darker than his previous films, resulting in some severe tonal inconsistencies. Despite being based on a true story, there’s a nagging falseness to the proceedings, from the trite relationship issues between David and his girlfriend to the gun running hiccups the characters encounter along the way. And while a few scenes stand out for their deft mixture of action and comedy, such as an unexpected gun smuggling excursion through Iraq’s triangle of death and a mishap at an Albanian ammunition warehouse, there’s simply not enough entertainment value to justify sitting through this tale of Miami Beach bottom feeders.
Although “War Dogs” is basically a two-hander, Miles Teller’s character David Packouz serves as the story’s moral center, and he plays the Everyman role effectively if unmemorably. As evidenced by his breakthrough performance in “Whiplash,” Teller has the necessary acting chops to maintain audience interest, but his role in “War Dogs” doesn’t offer many opportunities to exploit his skill set. Similarly, as his corner-cutting, designer clothes sporting childhood pal, Jonah Hill is gifted with the more eccentric role, but his greediness and diabolical nature reaches levels of absurdity that only add to strain the story’s credibility. Bradley Cooper succeeds in channeling the appropriate amount of shadiness as a sleazy arms dealer with all the right connections, though the role is little more than a cameo. Aside from these three A-listers, Kevin Pollack is the only other noteworthy actor, playing the Jewish owner of a dry-clean chain who bankrolls the buddies’ business.
A toothless satire that lacks bite, there’s no need to get in business with these “War Dogs.”
Rated R for language throughout, drug use and some sexual references.
Running Time: 114 minutes