Take a little American Hustle, add a bit of The Wolf of Wall Street and The Big Short, then throw in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and you have the recipe for War Dogs, a rather incredible true story and the first semi-serious movie from The Hangover director Todd Phillips. I say semi-serious because despite some fascinating insights into the business of war, this is really a funny buddy picture at heart. But as I say in my video review (click the link above to watch), when those buddies are Jonah Hill and Miles Teller, working at the top of their game, that’s a very good thing.
If this weren’t true, I would find the premise of two lifelong Miami friends who stumble onto a multimillion-dollar business selling arms to the U.S. government far-fetched and unbelievable. But, fictionalized as some of it may be, the crux of it is all based on the Guy Lawson’s 2011 Rolling Stone article “Arms and the Dudes” — the film’s original title — and is fact-laden throughout. The story is set up through the narration of David (Teller), a massage therapist who is trying to go into business selling silk bed sheets to nursing homes. That goes nowhere, but then his childhood buddy Ephraim (Hill) lures him into a partnership in his new business, AEY Inc., which sells small quantities of weapons to the military for use in Iraq and Afghanistan. This came about when Ephraim discovered the Bush administration in 2005 had changed the game on government weapons contracts, allowing anyone — not just big corporations — to bid for the business.
One thing leads to another, and the pair suddenly finds themselves in over their heads when they amazingly outbid everyone and land a $300 million deal to supply AK-47 bullets to the U.S.-backed army in Afghanistan. They are able to try to pull this off with the help of a shady but savvy and successful arms dealer (Bradley Cooper) they meet in Vegas. He leads them to Albania, of all places, and a warehouse full of just the ammunition they need — all in one place far out of the purview of the feds.
The partnership is tested by the arrogance and greediness of Ephraim, who stays behind in Miami while David oversees the operation using a number of Albanian locals who come in very handy when it is discovered that almost all this stuff was made in China, a disastrous turn of events since U.S. contractors are forbidden to deal with Chinese merchandise. Ephraim, who’s into prostitutes and cocaine, also finds himself idolizing Al Pacino’s Scarface character, a con man selling himself with a series of false claims and lies to whoever will listen. This causes all sorts of headaches for David, escalating into a big crisis for the pair as they try to hide the fact that their ticket to the big time was made in China. Adding to David’s woes is a new baby and a girlfriend (Ana de Armas) who has growing distrust of the business the former masseuse now is trapped in.
I found Phillips’ handling of this material (from a script he co-wrote with Stephen Chin and Jason Smilovic) not only compelling and entertaining but fresh. It shows the mostly unseen underbelly of the U.S. arms business in a new light, essentially war for sale, and makes credible the idea that a couple of small-time “dudes” could crack the code and pull one over on the biggest military operation in the world — almost. This is a smart, intelligent and darkly funny movie in every respect and a big leap forward for Phillips. Hill is blissfully over the top and has a field day with his character. Teller perfectly counters him as a guy who goes along with the plan that is making them instant millionaires, at least until it doesn’t. Cooper, in addition to playing a no-nonsense tough-guy supporting role, is one of the producers along with his Hangover director Phillips and Mark Gordon.
Warner Bros opens War Dogs wide today. Do you plan to see it? Let us know what you think.