David Packouz (Miles Teller) is a young Miamian who is college educated and yet has found employment difficult to hold on to. He is now a massage therapist. It is 2005 and he admits in the brief and painless opening narration, that he is lost. He meets up with an old high school friend, Ephraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill). He quickly discovers that Ephraim, by contrast, has a very strong sense of direction. He had been working with his uncle in an online business selling second-hand firearms. This went well until he and his uncle had a falling out. Ephraim has returned to Miami determined to set up on his own. He is a self-described arms dealer.
This sounds like so much braggadocio at first. Ephraim appears to be a narcissist with impulse control issues. David is a little put off by his old friend, but eventually Ephraim offers him a job. David and his girlfriend Iz (Ana de Armas) are living from paycheck to paycheck, so he accepts the offer. The job requires him to scout through a government website and discover opportunities to supply weapons and hardware, in small amounts, to the US military. Small is a relative term. Some of the tenders can involve supplying hundreds of handguns or helmets; peanuts to a fully-fledged company, but a sizeable contract to a small player like Ephraim. His business (called AEY) is poorly-organised and amateurish in every respect, but he actually is an arms dealer.
When David becomes part of AEY, he discovers some aptitude for ferreting out good leads and bulldusting the military over the telephone. He increases AEY’s business and begins to enjoy a fast-paced life-style and a rollercoaster friendship with Ephraim. The bigger players describe small-timers like Ephraim and David as War Dogs. They take this insult as a badge of honour.
WAR DOGS focuses on the recent past when the Bush administration was deeply involved in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. These toxic conflicts provide the perfect unsupervised conditions for unregulated businesses to thrive. Ephraim and David are young, amoral go-getters who are completely invested in the American Dream. They see themselves as gambling big and therefore deserve to win big. In this way, WAR DOGS has a lot in common with GOODFELLAS (1990) or THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013). Writer-director Todd Phillips is doing a Scorsese-lite although the end result is probably more akin to Ted Demme’s BLOW (2001).
Which is not to damn the film with faint praise. Hill is very watchable as the monstrous Ephraim. The movie has a real snap and energy to it. The story is based on real events which were subsequently written up in Guy Lawson’s book Arms and the Dudes. Some critics charge that Miles Teller’s character has been sanitized into a nice guy to give the audience someone to relate to. There is some validity to this as the David Packouz we see is a partial composite of a third partner, who isn’t in the movie, called Alex Podrizki. It’s as though the better parts of two of the players were required to make one morally acceptable protagonist. David allows himself to be tempted across the line again and again by Ephraim’s promises of bigger paydays. He may indeed be a nice guy, but is he a good man?
Comparing this new Todd Phillips movie to the best of Scorsese is a very film critic thing to do. It makes more sense to admire the director of ROAD TRIP (2000), OLD SCHOOL (2003) and THE HANGOVER trilogy for showing a slightly askew sensibility that is only hinted at in some of his crowd-pleasing hits. In a commercial market where questions about government and war tend only to be expressed through movies like the Russo Brothers’ CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER (not that there’s anything wrong with that, stand down, fanboys) it’s good to see a comedy/drama in wide release with a satirical take on recent history.
WAR DOGS is in Australian cinemas from today. 114 minutes. (7/10)