"War Dogs" is too good of a true story not to get the Hollywood treatment, even if the end result doesn't entirely do justice to the moral ambiguities and larger geopolitical implications of one of the craziest hustles in modern American history.
Essentially, in 2007, a couple of 20-something stoners from Miami Beach landed a nearly $300 million contract from the Department of Defense to supply ammunition to the Afghan military. And, unbeknownst to the U.S. government at the time, many of the supplies they were selling were over 40 years old, manufactured in China and basically unusable.
It's an absolutely insane story of the ambition, delusion and megalomania of a few young strivers who managed to find a lucrative place in the international arms game. The events have been chronicled extensively in the press over the past eight years, including by journalist Guy Lawson, whose Rolling Stone article "The Stoner Arms Dealers" and book became the basis for the film.
Director and co-writer Todd Phillips, best known for chest-thumping comedies like "The Hangover" trilogy, reaches beyond his comfort zone to tell this complicated and fraught tale. The film struggles to find the right tone, and instead of consistency goes for a more disjointed kitchen-sink approach that juggles satire, bro fantasy and high-stakes thriller with varying results.
Miles Teller stars as David Packouz, a struggling massage therapist who takes up with Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) in a moment of desperation. A much shadier figure but a childhood friend nonetheless, Efraim has the plan to game the government contracts system and make a few bucks from the war.
David gets to play the family guy who just wants to provide for his beautiful partner Iz (a one-note Ana de Armas) and newborn daughter. The audience has to care about someone after all, and it was never going to be Efraim, a schemer who fetishizes "Scarface," money, women and guns, and who goes from general creep to all out sociopath as the film progresses. Hill makes him sleazy to the core, with a hyena-like laugh that will make your skin crawl (possibly out of embarrassment).
As with so many of these fast-rise-and-faster-fall stories, at first David and Efraim are having a "Hangover"-style blast — running from armed militia in Iraq to hand deliver Italian guns to an American outpost, and doing cocaine in the clubs with South Beach babes all around. The tone in this first part feels almost a little too light-hearted and gleeful for the subject matter. Are we supposed to think of these dudes as subversive heroes and delight alongside them in the money, the drugs and the adrenaline of engaging in something so risky? It's never quite clear.
Things do get substantially darker (and more over the top) when the guys take on the $300 million contract that will eventually be their downfall. This is where the film, and Teller in particular, really come alive focusing more on the practicalities and headaches of the illegal business of repackaging the Chinese munitions. Bradley Cooper has a small role as a mob-like, blacklisted arms dealer in this section, too.
"War Dogs" seems to want to be everything from "The Social Network" to "The Big Short" and while it flirts with moments of greatness, the script just can't compete with the brains of those other films. Or maybe that's because the audience is getting the story straight from David, whose real-life version has a cameo in the film and is far too valorized to be believable.
In the end, this rendition of Efraim and David's wild story probably plays a lot like the movie version they would be likely to fantasize about. It's an entertaining lark when it could have been a shattering indictment — of America, of these dudes and the military industrial complex.
What: "War Dogs." Directed by Todd Phillips. A Warner Bros. release
With: Miles Teller, Jonah Hill, Ana de Armas
Star rating (out of four): •
MPAA rating: R — restricted; under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian — for "language throughout, drug use and some sexual references"
Running time: 1 hour 54 minutes
Playing at: Beacon Cinema (Pittsfield); Berkshire Mall 10 (Lanesborough); and North Adams Movieplex 8