Greed goes to war in ‘War Dogs’
Hollywood loves a rags-to-riches story. Since the early days of movies, tales of down-on-their-luck losers who suddenly hit it big were all the rage. The message was usually that through hard work and perseverance, anyone could achieve the American Dream. Nowadays, these stories aren’t anywhere near as cut and dry. Now, the meteoric rise involves corruption, deception, betrayal, greed, and an unstoppable ambition to succeed, no matter the cost or collateral damage our main character inflicts along the way. One of the best examples of this is Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, which saw Leonardo DiCaprio as stockbroker turned criminal Jordan Belfort, who made a fortune in gray area (and often outright illegal) dealings in the stock market. Now we have Todd Phillips’ War Dogs, starring Wolf alum Jonah Hill and Miles Teller and based on a Rolling Stone article by Guy Lawson.
Hill and teller are Efraim Diveroli and David Packouz, two dudes in their twenties who stake their claim in the arms business during the mid-2000s War on Terror. David begins as an aimless massage therapist who’s big ambition in life is to sell sheets to nursing homes. Efraim, on the other hand, is a gun lover working for his family’s arms business and pursuing small-time government contracts that he finds online. When the two have a chance meeting at a funeral, Efraim asks David to come on as his partner, and David—who just found out his girlfriend Iz (Ana de Armas) is pregnant—happily jumps at the chance to start earning some real money. Because of various initiatives passed by the Bush-Cheney White House, the guys are in a prime position to grow their small business, AEY Inc., into a potential multibillion-dollar arms empire that can compete with some of the largest contenders in the lucrative industry. At first, they only go after the crumbs, knowing that in the world of government spending, even crumbs are worth millions, but after a few successful deals, they’re hungry to expand.
Their chance comes in the form of a massive contract to arm the Afghan military. The U.S. Government needs a hundred million rounds of ammunition, and these two small-time guys are able to undercut the competition by $50 million, so naturally, they land the contract. David brokers a deal through shady intermediary Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper) to secure a massive old stockpile of Albanian ammunition for resale. The profit margins will be enormous, and the government will largely look the other way on most of it since the whole basis of most of these contracts is to give them plausible deniability by channeling everything through privatized intermediaries like AEY. There’s just one problem, the U.S. has an embargo on Chinese ammunition and, wouldn’t you know it, that’s exactly what Girard has arranged to sell to David and Efraim. Rather than risk losing the deal, they decide to simply repackage the ammunition, removing it from the Chinese crates and delivering it in generic cardboard boxes.
At the same time, David and Efraim’s relationship starts to deteriorate. While they refer to each other as partners, David realizes that he doesn’t actually have anything in writing and asks Efraim to sign a document solidifying his portion of the deal. This triggers the already distrustful Efraim to question David’s loyalty, and hairline fractures in AYE’s facade start to turn into full-on caverns. Despite the enormous profit he’s making, Efraim feels like he’s getting screwed by everyone and attempts to cut Henry Girard out of the equation, something that backfires in a major way and starts their empire crumbling from the inside out.
Much like The Wolf of Wall Street, this movie has you rooting for the bad guys, the morally bankrupt individuals who will sell out any and everyone to get rich. This can make you a bit uncomfortable at times, particularly here because it’s tied up in a war in which many people lost their lives. Still, their meteoric rise also comes with a pretty gigantic fall, and making Efraim so much of a villain makes it much easier for the audience to be okay with the fact that David was right there with him during these shady deals. There’s enough corruption to go around, so David can still be likable and sympathetic even when he’s doing morally questionable things.
Teller and Hill absolutely convey the chemistry of old friends, which makes their early business relationship believable. They’re a couple young guys who like to party, and they’re just out to get a piece of the military-industrial pie. Combined with the slick filmmaking and clever chapter titles taken from scene dialogue, it feels like Oceans Eleven or parts of The Big Short. When things turn darker for the duo, Hill, in particular, stands out by portraying Efraim as so duplicitous, yet always lying with a smile on his face that’s almost always enough to fool David into thinking everything’s fine. It has flashes of The Social Network, which saw Jesse Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg deflecting his own deceitful behavior with Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) as he backstabbed his BFF Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield). It’s the “this is just how the business works” mentality that lets Efraim get away with so much while David just nods and goes along with it, totally unaware that he too will be expendable once there’s big money on the line.
Overall, War Dogs is absolutely entertaining—at times very funny, at times a grim reminder of the not-so-distant past. While Phillips is most known for The Hangover trilogy, which took a good idea and ran with it until it was a horrible idea, this film shows he can make something relevant and fascinating while still keeping a little of those “drugged up bros having an adventure” roots that made him famous.