The hard to believe true story of War Dogs is about two stoners who manage to get so in over their heads as independent arm dealers that they ended up striking a $300 million government contract with the Pentagon. This insane tale was set out in great detail by Guy Lawson is his book Arms and the Dudes, based on an earlier article that he wrote for Rolling Stone. This wacky adventure of bro hi-jinks was adapted for the screen by director Todd Phillips, based on a script he worked on with Stephen Chin and Jason Smilovic. Imagine if Lord Of War, The Hangover, The Wolf Of Wall Street and The Social Network combined into a film headed by the same guy behind movies such as The Hangover trilogy, Old School, and Due Date. Yeah, it’s a wild one alright.
It’s 2005, and David Packouz (Miles Teller) spends his days working as a massage therapist for rich old men in Miami. He’s trying to make a better life for him and his pregnant girlfriend Iz (Ana de Armas), hoping to start a business of his own selling bed sheets to the numerous number of retirement homes that populate the Miami area. It’s when he reunites with old friend Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) – who he hasn’t seen since they were youths getting in trouble together – that he gets roped into a business that is quite the opposite of giving massages or selling sheets. Efraim runs his own company AEY, where he bids on U.S. military contracts during the Iraq war. As all the other war dogs (the men who make money off the war without setting foot on the actual battlefield) fight for the huge pieces of the pie, Efraim goes for the crumbs, finding the tinier contracts that he can spin into lucrative deals.
David and Efraim start out small but soon their success spins out of control to the point where they’re being shot at while driving guns directly to the U.S. military in Iraq through the “Triangle Of Death”. It’s hard to believe that was just the beginning, as soon the two somehow manage to get their stoner-hands on a $300 million deal that has them flying out to Albania, where they set up shop so they can sell off Chinese ammunition that was sold to them by sketchy big-shot arms dealer Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper).
Phillips flashes some of the flare that he captured so well during the first (and only the first) The Hangover during the first half of War Dogs. The introductory scenes of David and Efraim getting together and forming this lucrative entity that they have absolutely no business being in is vibrant and entertaining. But the moment after the boys secure their mega deal with the U.S. government in Illinois, I noticed a severe shift in the kinetic energy of the film, and what once felt fresh and engaging now felt tired and cliched. The drama between David and Iz feels forced, as his lies have finally caught up with him, but their relationship feels undercooked and tossed to the side, and when it finally does remerge, you just wish they’d spare us and get back to the Lord Of War-esque happenings. War Dogs wears its Scorsese influence on its sleeve, but unlike films of Goodfellas, it doesn’t have the narrative chops to hang around. The musical cues from the soundtrack are far too familiar and on the nose, to the point where it goes a bit past tribute and close to imitation. It was like the greatest hits of classic rock anthems used in similar situations in better films.
The fact that the film spins off during the weaker second half is disappointing, but overall I still found myself having a good time with it, noticeable flaws and all, thanks to a much stronger first half. Jonah Hill offers up yet another wild and energetic performance that is totally absurd, but undeniably hysterical. Teller is fine here, working better when he’s able to work off of Hill, who certainly elevated Teller’s game. The lovely Ana de Armas isn’t given much to work with her, but makes the best of a rather empty role. Bradley Cooper’s performance is really just an extended cameo, but the guy makes the most out of every frame, squeezing mystery and intrigue out of his character.
War Dogs is often funny, and does entertain for a strong part of it’s duration, but the unevenness of the second half brings it all to a disappointing halt that kept it from being the wild ride that such a tale deserves.