'War Dogs': Film Review

Fun enough, as late-summer studio comedies go.

Miles Teller and Jonah Hill star as childhood pals who become international arms dealers in this new comedy from Todd Phillips (the 'Hangover' franchise).

Minor-league scumbags try to take their hustle to the bigs and find themselves in way over their heads in War Dogs, a moderately amusing based-on-reality account of two young American opportunists who bumble and bully their way into the world of international arms dealing during the Iraq War. The two misguided schemers here, played with simultaneously engaging and repellent energy by Jonah Hill and Miles Teller, definitely walk the same side of the street as the guys in Todd Phillips' Hangover outings and even bump into Bradley Cooper on a visit to Las Vegas, but the stakes they play for end up being very much higher. Although comic films about Americans in Middle Eastern war zones (Rock the Kasbah, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot) haven't exactly caught the public's fancy, this one should pull in reasonable late-summer returns for Warner Bros.

Working from a 2011 Rolling Stone article by Guy Lawson, scriptwriters Phillips, Stephen Chin and Jason Smilovic had a tough task cut out for them creating any rooting interest in their two leading characters. David Packouz (Teller) is a bland 22-year-old unsuccessfully trying to peddle high-thread-count bedsheets to old folks' homes when, in 2005, he fatefully re-encounters childhood pal Efraim Diveroli (Hill), an overweight bully and loud-mouth who brazenly demonstrates his startling unpredictability by pulling a machine gun out of his car trunk and firing it in the direction of some dudes who have ripped him off in a drug deal.

David, who has absolutely nothing going for him (except for an unaccountably beautiful girlfriend, played by Ana de Armas), isn't exactly crazy about Efraim's bluster and erratic behavior. But he does enjoy the man's bottomless supply of drugs, is amused by his idol worship of Al Pacino's Scarface and is impressed by the money coming in from his sale of some equipment to the CIA, so he willingly becomes Efraim's tag-along accomplice when it seems the sky's the limit.

Perhaps as a sop to modern audiences, the script makes a big point out of having both guys say they don't like George W. Bush and are opposed to the Iraq War. All the same, the yarn hinges on their unbridled enthusiasm for a new administration initiative that opens up bidding for U.S. military contracts to any and all comers (an actual decision taken in reaction to charges of government cronyism with Halliburton and other huge corporate war beneficiaries). Efraim and David spend a lot of time scrolling down the official government website listing all the war-connected contracts on offer, and it's the latter who nails a deal to deliver a huge supply of Berretas to U.S. forces in Iraq.

Pulling this off requires far more effort, ingenuity and sheer luck than the boys bargained for, just as it provides the film with its most eventful and suspenseful interlude. Call it beginners' luck or a case of what you don't know can't hurt you, but the guys end up having to fly in a panic to Jordan, then accompany their cargo by night across 500 miles of desert to Baghdad as their laconic local driver assures them it's a “very safe” trip — their chances of making it are 50-50.

But once they cash in, their hubris triggers predictably dire consequences. Now ensconced in lavish digs filled out with a raft of employees, the boys head for a giant ammo Expo in Vegas — ”It's like Comic-Con with grenades,” Efraim allows — where a mysterious gentleman (Bradley Cooper) informs of them of an enormous opportunity awaiting resourceful chaps like themselves: a Cold War era's worth of ammo still sitting packaged and unused in Albanian warehouses, enough to lure ready buyers in Afghanistan to the tune of $300 million.

As things unspool and unravel, Iraq looks like paradise compared to Albania, where the duplicity, craftiness and deceit of communism's survivors quickly shows up the young Americans for the arrivistes they are. Whatever fates await these little sharks who decided to jump into the pool with the big sharks, no one can say they didn't have it coming.

It's not possible to claim that Efraim and David are charming or even good company, so irresponsible is the former and lacking in character is the latter. But the combination of bluster and maybe even partial insanity in the former and optimistic gullibility in the latter combines with the outrageous situations they bring upon themselves to keep you warily fascinated, if not charmed. Hardly inexperienced at playing belligerent, outrageous and offensive a-holes, Hill offers a definitive account of one here, to which Teller can only play the blander, if useful, second fiddle who has to try, and try again, to stand up to the gruff bully. Maybe in 20 years they can co-star in a Broadway revival of The Odd Couple.

Distributor: Warner Bros.
Production: Joint Effort, Mark Gordon Company
Cast: Jonah Hill, Miles Teller, Ana de Armas, Kevin Pollak, J.B. Blanc, Bradley Cooper, Barry Livingston, Bryan Chesters
Director: Todd Phillips
Screenwriters: Stephen Chin, Todd Phillips, Jason Smilovic, based on the
Rolling Stone article “Arms and the Dudes” by Guy Lawson
Producers: Mark Gordon, Todd Phillips, Bradley Cooper
Executive producers: David Siegel, Bryan Suriff, Brett Ratner, Scott Budnick, Mark O'Connor
Director of photography: Lawrence Sher
Production designer: Bill Brzeski
Costume designer: Michael Kaplan
Editor: Jeff Groth
Music: Cliff Martinez
Casting: John Papsidera

Rated R, 114 minutes