The War in Iraq was a massive waste of lives and money, but at least a few guys profited off of it. Efraim Diveroli and David Packouz were a couple of young kids that negotiated their way into the deal that involved guns, violence and the US government. Their success at gun running provided a lot of riches until they were eventually caught and given very different sentences.
War Dogs is only interested in the first part of that sentence, despite an opening that points out how expensive and wasteful armed conflict can be. Could you blame them? The lavish lifestyles Diveroli and Packouz lived while delivering arms is far more interesting than their predictable fall; any hope of a social commentary on war is pretty much thrown out the window the moment you hire the director of the Hangover movies.
Packouz (Miles Teller) is a loser massage therapist living a life that’s going nowhere. That life is about to get a lot more expensive when his girlfriend Iz (Ana de Armas) announces she’s pregnant. After some aggressive selling by Diveroli (Jonah Hill), he decides to join his friend’s business, which involves legally selling military equipment to the government from the comfort of their own place in Florida.
Because this is a cautionary tale, the legality and safeness of their jobs drops once big money starts getting thrown around, and AEY (their business) deals with an arms dealer (Bradley Cooper) wanted by the government. Hill keeps mundane business deals and phone calls exciting with his sheer asshole demeanor, which is bro-ish bordering on psychotic. Both characters reference Scarface throughout, but you get the sense that Packouz is merely posturing while Diveroli’s ambition is deadly real. Diveroli thinks he is Tony Montana, just with guns instead of cocaine.
Throughout Packouz is portrayed as the big-eyed innocent roped into some serious business, while Diveroli is the slime that can make even a simply business contract feel dirty. I have a feeling that real-life David was a lot more guilty than the film portrays him to be, but the script does a good job of framing him as a kid just trying to provide for his wife and kid.
Teller plays the role well, but it’s Hill who owns this movie. He’s been the supporting role to established dramatic actors before (Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio), but War Dogs should mark his emergence as a leading man. He has an arrogant and intense swagger that takes over the entire story, carrying this film on his back before swallowing it whole because that’s what a “bro” would do. His performance is so good I wished we’d see more of Diveroli and what made him tick, rather than just having him be the force that just comes in and upends David’s day.
The script clearly outlines and explains what could be a complex topic, infusing it with jokes and a lot of obvious soundtrack choices (“Fortunate Son” for when the military comes in). It frames the two men as likely being better than they actually were, but War Dogs is persuasive in how it portrays them as just doing what anybody else would be doing. It scared me to think about myself as I wrote that sentence.
Stills frames with lines of dialogue outline each part of the film like chapters letting us know what’s coming next. It’s another smart choice by Phillips, as even the dumbest moviegoer could see a line like “THAT SOUNDS ILLEGAL” and imagine the characters are about to get involved in some bad business. Turns out hiring the guy most famous for making dumb comedies wasn’t such a bad move after all.
The only character that doesn’t work here is Packouz’s girlfriend/wife Iz. Arms does what she can with a barely-written role that basically requires her to alternate between being happy, sad and hurt. Furthermore, she frequently chastises David for lying to her regarding business, yet she keeps taking him back. It’s a classic woman role that feels degrading; all Iz ends up being is confused or a nag for two hours.
I walked in expecting a bombastic ode to ‘Merica and greed that Donald Trump would love, and instead got an amusing tale of moral ambiguity topped by Jonah Hill’s best performance. Some might find it an offensive tale that glamorizes shady American deals, but I thought it was a compelling crime dramedy. Invest in this one, if only to get a retrospective in how terrible the Iraq War was for everybody that didn’t profit in it.
Published by Jagger Czajka