When Edwin Starr famously insisted that war was good for “absolutely nothing! (say it again!)” he clearly hadn’t considered the obscene amount of money it generates for arms dealers. Whilst most films about arms dealers usually deals with the illegal side of the industry (as corporate suits signing contracts isn’t really all that sexy) War Dogs blurs that line a little, coming down closer to The Wolf of Wall Street than Office Space. War Dogs has an advantage in that it takes place in the early-2000s, following a scandal where the Bush administration were caught red-handed awarding no-bid defence contracts to corporate behemoths like Halliburton and Lockheed Martin in what appeared to be a case of the military industrial complex giving itself an obscenely lucrative reach-around. To kill the allegations of corruption, the pentagon allowed any Tom, Dick and Harry not on a terrorist watch list to openly bid on every single weapons contract offered by the US military. This enabled an entire new class of bottom feeders to emerge who sheltered beneath the monstrous bulk of the military acquisitions like remoras under a bloated shark.
We are introduced to our bottom feeder du jour as he’s having a gun stuck in his face in Albania, David Packhouz (Miles Teller) is a baby-faced ex-massage therapist whose Scorsese-lite narration quickly makes it clear that he is about as qualified to run guns as he is to perform open heart surgery. Flashing back to his former non-having-a-gun-stuck-in-his-face life reveals a lost and bored twenty-something trying desperately to make ends meet (whilst also taking any opportunity to get stoned that presents itself) who fortune throws something between a bone and a hand-grenade to when he has a chance run-in with his childhood best friend Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), a (barely) licenced arms dealer who operates out of a boxy office mostly occupied with a gigantic Scarface mural.
Hill’s Diveroli is the film’s not-so secret weapon, all dead eyes and bullfrog jowls, he rampages through the film, even his performance in The Wolf of Wall Street wasn’t quite this bravura. Whilst crude and perhaps sociopathic, Diveroli is intensely charming and magnetic. You can clearly see why anyone would be happily swept up by his particular brand of bullshit and the film comes to life whenever he’s on it. Soon Packhouz is serving as his pocket company’s number two and things lock into the standard ‘rise’ narrative of any rise/fall crime drama worth its salt as the two young hustlers lie and cheat themselves to bigger and bigger deals. What stands out about War Dogs however (and perhaps something that the film could have dwelt on more) is that far from being criminal, of this was completely legal and that this cutthroat mania was downright encouraged by the way that the arms industry was set up.
Not everything in the film works, Packhouz’s girlfriend Iz (Ana de Armas) seems to exist purely to be a nagging voice of conscience without any other distinct character traits (unless you count ‘pregnant’) and the film temporarily runs out of steam in its final act (before pulling it together again for an ambiguous ending). The soundtrack is also an unapologetic victory lap of classic seventies rock that has all been featured in a million other movies; for me this worked well with the bombastic tone of the film, but if the idea of a last second rescue by army helicopters scored to CCR’s Fortunate Son makes you roll your eyes then perhaps this isn’t the picture for you. However, there are plenty of moment’s where the film comes together with style and purpose: An (admittedly invented) high speed chase through ‘the triangle of death’ in Iraq gives the film a much-needed kickstart and as with every appearance of the reptilian and frankly unnerving gun runner Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper, wraparound glasses magnifying bloodshot eyes) who seems to have had the humanity physically burned out of him, the film offers an icy glimpse of what lurks in the darker depths in which it’s two young idiots are paddling. Much like The Wolf Of Wall Street, War Dogs offers little or no judgement onto its protagonists which may annoy some viewers, but ultimately strengthens the film and saves it from the third act preachiness of similar films like Lord Of War.
Director Todd Philips made his name with the notably mean-spirited Hangover comedy trilogy, a fairly dark bro-comedy series that had completely outstayed its welcome by the second film. With War Dogs he finds himself in far more fertile territory, putting the kinetic pace of his comedy work to good use by telling a true story that sets out to be The Big Short of arms dealing. It’s not nearly as clever or original a film as the one it’s emulating (and shamelessly apes Scorsese for everything it’s worth) but War Dogs manages to strike a deeply entertaining balance whilst telling a truly bizarre story in a regrettably straight down the line way. Not every film can move the cinematic goal posts, but this one colours inside it’s rather rigid lines with some notable style.