When adapting a true story of gun runners from a Rolling Stone article entitled “Arms and the Dudes,” director Todd Phillips appears to be a solid choice. His direction on the Hangover trilogy seems to fit like a glove for a tale of two shmucky 20-somethings landing a Pentagon arms deal in War Dogs. Phillips may not be able to provide the most compelling portrait of the Middle Eastern war profiteering, but he knows how to weave some comedy out of such a scenario.
And based on recent Middle Eastern war pictures Rock the Kasbah and Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, comedy is the order of the day, no matter how odd or ill-fitting the genre may appear on such a subject. Still, I had my hopes for Phillips and his abilities that he would bring out something humorous and smart with such material. And he would have if he only had the guts to push it further and commit to the disgustingly warped nature of it all.
Miles Teller plays David Packouz, a young upstart down on his luck while going into business for himself. Reduced to a massage therapist, he finds himself desperate for cash when his girlfriend turns out to be pregnant. Into his life walks Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), an old friend with an offer to work for his lucrative weapons dealing business. Taking advantage of government loopholes that leave the door wide open for merchants, Efraim is able to make thousands of dollars in a few days for buying and shipping weapons he never has to touch. David lies to his now-wife, who is very much against the current Middle Eastern conflict of 2005, and begins to rank in the big money with Efraim. Refusing to lay low on a few hundred thousand, Efraim and David begin staking out the bigger contracts ranging in the millions.
What’s remarkable about War Dogs is how far these two actually go before their greed catches up with them and their actions become illegal. When a shipment of berettas are seized from them in Jordan, Efraim and David decide to take matters into their own hands and drive a truckload of guns from Jordan to Baghdad. When a Pentagon contract becomes a viable option, they undertake a method of new packaging to sell Chinese ammo which was embargoed. They screw up, fix a mistake and keep making money until the feds eventually knock at their door.
Phillips makes some odd choices in the direction as he uses chapter stops of forthcoming dialogue that appear on screen. This seems as though it was meant to convey some anticipation, but most of these lines come off as pointless spoilers for what will happen next. Not to mention these are all rather forgettable quotes of typical drama dialogue used for a trailer. Phillips also goes for the easy method of these pictures by relying on montages with just-the-facts narration over the most predictable of music choices. How many more times must we hear CCR’s “It Ain’t Me” over scenes of war before it becomes a dead cliche?
The tone and pacing of the first act of War Dogs do become engaging enough to look past these shortcomings. There’s a crassness and intoxicating nature to the shady world of weapon dealings, mixed in with the dude-bro mannerisms of two best buddies playing the game. There’s a reason to care about David and his plight, as well as a mystery with Efraim’s true intentions behind his thick girth and tan. Even the sequence where they have to drive guns through the “circle of death” was pretty interesting in how there was some real tension and a threat of being gunned down on the road.
But after the literal running of guns, an act that would seem to be enough to make any normal human quit and enjoy the rest of their life with a family, the story passively portrays their hunger for more money from guns. They start up their company with new digs, spend money on spacious apartments, hide money in their toilets; all the classic signs of a money operation growing too big for its own britches. The movie just plateaus at this point and goes through the motions of making their lives more complicated with legal issues without much character and lacking in any true ugliness of the whole situation.
Read more to hear how the second half changes speeds: