It’s 2007. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan rage on. The United States government decides that they want to arm the Afghan military for the long term; as a result, they post a massive arms order, valued at over $300 million. Back in the States, two 20-somethings (Efraim Diveroli and David Packouz) and their company, AEY, somehow manage to win this contract. It’s a little hard to fathom how such a ridiculous situation could even come to fruition. But after researching the story behind Todd Phillips’ latest film WAR DOGS, I was reminded of the old adage, “sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction.”
Based on an Rolling Stone article by Guy Lawson (“The Stoner Arms Dealers,” which is an incredible read that you can find on the Rolling Stone website’s archives), which Lawson turned into a full-length book, ARMS AND THE DUDES, the film follows David Packouz (played by Miles Teller) as a struggling massage therapist (and part-time bed sheet salesman – yes, you read that right) in Miami Beach, FL just trying to make ends meet. After becoming disillusioned with his future prospects, he runs into an old childhood friend at a funeral, Efraim Diveroli (played by Jonah Hill). Diveroli brings Packouz into the world of international arms dealing through his company, AEY, explaining how the U.S. government is constantly posting offers on the website FedBizOpps for arms due to the ongoing War in Iraq; these deals, as it turns out, are worth quite a bit of money. Packouz, after finding out that his girlfriend, Iz (played by Ana de Armas), is pregnant, decides to take Diveroli up on his offer to join AEY, and the two begin a partnership that sees them become real rich, real fast.
The story itself is absolutely fascinating – a story tailor-made for cinema. And as with any “based on a true story” films, there is some artistic license involved. It actually disappointed me to find out that many of the film’s great moments (such as the duo’s drive through Iraq) did not actually happen. That scene, in fact, was my favorite moment of the film. It elicited the very same emotions that I had while watching the final airport scene in ARGO – that goosebumps-filled tension that keeps you on the edge of your seat. I don’t want to say that I was surprised that someone of Todd Phillips’ reputation was able to pull off such an amazing scene, but much of this film really doesn’t feel like it’s a Todd Phillips film. And in many ways, that’s a good thing.
When you have a story about best friends, it is essential that the actors you cast have fluent chemistry with each other; the audience has to buy that these two guys really are best friends. In that regard, both Jonah Hill and Miles Teller hit it out of the park. Their chemistry together really helps bring the audience into the story, and the script does a great job of finding the right balance between making these characters interesting and fun while not necessarily condoning their actions, especially when the story ventures off into “illegal” territory. In that sense, it actually does still feel like a Todd Phillips film, as he’s made a career out of stories involving best friends (as THE HANGOVER trilogy has shown). As far as individual performances go, Jonah Hill carries this film on his back. His portrayal of a reckless man with nothing to lose is astounding, and it really helps legitimize the story being told. Since his performances in both THE SPECTACULAR NOW and WHIPLASH, I have been a huge fan of Miles Teller. But in this film, he was the obvious second fiddle even though the story is being told from his character’s perspective. I feel this is more of a script flaw than it is a performance flaw, as it was obvious that Teller was trying to deliver a great performance. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Ana de Armas as Iz, who constantly came off very flat in her performance. Even worse, her chemistry with Teller was just not there, and it’s enough to take the audience right out of the film. In their scenes together, I never got the sense that they were really a couple – all I saw were two actors performing a scene. That’s never a good thing. Luckily, her screen time is limited so it’s not a true deal breaker.
While the story itself has its comedic moments, they’re not really played for what I call “ha-ha” laughs (like Phillips’ filmography would have you believe). Rather, it’s a black comedy whose laughs come from the scary realization that this situation was even allowed to happen. While the first half of the film does contain the majority of the comedy (and some ha-ha laughs to break a lot of tension), the second half becomes a straight-up drama that sees lives and friendships ruined; it’s actually very chilling. But mostly, it seems that the film’s true aim is to critique the system that permitted Packouz and Diveroli to do what they did. It’s almost like the film is saying, “Sure, these guys are pretty sleazy, but they were simply exploiting a flawed system.” This is certainly new territory for Todd Phillips, and it’s refreshing to see him expand his repertoire by taking on a project of this style.
On a side note: I did like the various SCARFACE references made throughout this film. Not only because SCARFACE is my absolute-favorite-film-in-the-whole-wide-world, but because I loved the idea of Diveroli seeing himself as a modern-day Tony Montana, doing whatever it took to become a success. A very apt comparison, in my opinion.
As a whole, the film works due to two very active ingredients – a fascinating story and a Jonah Hill performance that should have everybody talking. However, what makes the film that much more powerful is how it gets your mind racing; as I left the theater, I knew that I had to read up on the real story, because I just wanted to know more. This is something that I recommend to anybody who sees WAR DOGS – research the real story. Because it’s just as, if not more, fascinating than what the movie portrays. If dramatic semi-political black comedies float your boat, then definitely check this one out in theaters while you still can. For everyone else, this film should have no trouble making your Netflix/Redbox queue.