War Dogs victorious
Promoted as the latest film from Hangover producer/director Todd Phillips, one could easily mistake War Dogs for yet another raunchy romp, this time with Jonah Hill and Miles Teller as the party-hearty dudes.
Instead, War Dogs is much more than that – a blistering black comedy and potent morality play in the guise of popular entertainment. With total assurance, Phillips tells a story so incredible it could only be true, with characters so unbelievable they could only be real. Last year, The Big Short marked a career high for Anchorman’s Adam McKay (who won an Oscar for its screenplay), and this year it’s Phillips’ turn to go above and beyond expectations.
Hill and Teller respectively play Efraim Diveroli and David Packouz, the real-life duo of junior-high buddies who later reunited to run AEY, a small Miami-based corporation specializing in the procurement of military hardware for the US Government. It being 2008, the Iraq War still rages.
David is initially reluctant, being no fan of the Bush/Cheney administration, but Efraim is gung-ho all the way, especially given their mutual penchant for controlled substances. Not only are they making money – a lot of it – but they’re helping their country. And if they happen to lie, cheat or steal along the way, isn’t that really the American Way? David can’t help but see Efraim’s logic.
There are some “frat-boy” hi-jinks, but War Dogs is instead a first-rate military and political satire. There have been earlier films about arms dealing – William Friedkin’s lamentable Deal of the Century and Andrew Niccol’s interesting but flawed Lord of War (2005) come to mind – but War Dogs far outdistances them both. The laughs are tinged, but not tainted, by the knowledge that this is no laughing matter.
Based on Guy Lawson’s Rolling Stone article Arms and the Dudes (the film’s original title) and billed as a true story, War Dogs does deviate – like many “factbased” movies – from the exact truth.
For example, Efraim and David did not transport a shipment of guns to Iraq themselves. Yet this sequence, one of the film’s best, conveys in highly cinematic terms the addictive thrill of risk.
There are noteworthy supporting performances by Kevin Pollak as AEY’s faithful sponsor and Ana de Armis as David’s girlfriend and moral barometer. Bradley Cooper, also a producer (and Hangover veteran), enjoys a sharp turn as a shadowy international arms dealer who joins forces with Efraim and David. It’s great fun to see Cooper in full rattlesnake mode, and he deftly nails it.
In the end, however, War Dogs belongs to Hill and Teller, who have tremendous chemistry. Teller effortlessly conveys the miseries of a hard-working man primed for seduction by the promise of big cash and big success, yet still able to feel guilty about it.
Hill, who in his best work – especially his Oscar-nominated turns in Moneyball (2011) and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) – has exuded a vulnerability under a comical demeanor, scores a personal best here. Underneath that goofy, chemicallyaddled and even likable surface lurks a truly venal, vindictive character. As Efraim Diveroli, Jonah Hill represents the dark underbelly (no pun intended) of the American Dream – and gives one of the best performances of the year.
Regardless of its box-office fate, War Dogs is near-perfect entertainment. It is concise, intelligent, hilarious, and loaded with irony. One of the year’s best, for sure.