Thursday, August 18, 2016

Review: "War Dogs"

 “War is the economy,” or so says Efraim Diveroli, a twentysomething hustler who inexplicably landed a contract from the Pentagon worth hundreds of millions of dollars to supply arms to the Afghan army.

Played by Jonah Hill in “War Dogs,” a slightly fictionalized version of real events, Efraim is a rudderless shark who will troll anywhere if it means a big payoff. He recruited his childhood friend, David Packouz (Miles Teller), into the company, AEY Inc., and together they became hipster wunderkinds of the international arms trade, which was doing banner business in the Aughts at the height of American involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.

These are the sort of guys that if Hollywood dreamed them up on their own, we’d be calling B.S. But it really happened. The bro buddies were eventually busted for repacking decades-old AK-47 ammunition from China (thus breaking an embargo) via a connection in Albania.

David, who turned evidence and got a few months house arrest, narrates the story and acts as the decent guy tempted by the indecent guy. Efraim served a few years in prison, but continued selling ammunition to the government through another company. David was a massage therapist before, and became one again. (The real David appears briefly in the movie as a bad singer).

Director Todd Phillips is known for crude comedies, notably the “Hangover” trilogy, and at first we think “War Dogs” is going to go down that route, having a good time with the guys as they drink, do drugs, party with girls and exploit the loopholes of a corrupt war machine. There’s a certain panache in the early going, as these know-nothing dolts drive 5,000 embargoed Berettas through Iraq’s “Triangle of Death,” barely escaping with their necks, then snigger about it like schoolboys.

“Yeah, we drive through all triangles … including your mother’s,” Efraim cracks.

The screenplay by Phillips, Jason Smilovic and Stephen Chin was based on a Rolling Stone article, later turned into a book, called “Arms and the Dudes.” That was the film’s original title, too, and I wish they’d stuck with it. “War Dogs” is generic and easily forgotten; you know a movie has a bad title when they have a character break away from the story to explain it to you.

The film’s fairly entertaining, until it tries to go too “Goodfellas” and become an all-encompassing indictment of our adventures in the Middle East. You gotta love it when scumbags break the law and do bad things for piles of cash, then blame it on “the system.” The movie throws a few anti-war nods -- both David and his girlfriend (Ana de Armas), are opposed to the war in Iraq -- along with some predictable shots at Dick Cheney and George W. Bush.

The last third of the movie becomes increasingly labored, as the circle slowly tightens and the buddies start to eye each other warily, waiting to see who will stab the other in the back first.

Bradley Cooper turns up briefly as Henry, a legendary arms dealer who represents what David and Efraim could be in another 15 or 20 years. I also enjoyed Kevin Pollak as a Jewish Miami dry cleaner operator who acts as their moneyman and, later, father confessor.

I liked a lot of things about “War Dogs” but not quite enough to recommend it. Miles Teller is hard to take your eyes off of, as usual; he’s got a natural rakish charm and is good at projecting his emotions in between the dialogue.

Jonah Hill’s got a dead-eye stare that he whips out to show the moral vacuum of his characters, but he needs to expand on that. And someone needs to tell him he’s funnier than Joe Pesci, but he’ll never be as scary.

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