War Dogs is Scorsese For Bros

Arms and Dudes is the name of reporter Guy Lawson’s book, whose real-life tale of a pair of unlikely gun runners is the inspiration behind Todd Phillips’ new film War Dogs. It is also the most accurate possible title this movie could have.

War Dogs banks on our simultaneous fascination and repulsion with assholery, delivering the biggest asshole of the summer in the form of Jonah Hill’s Efraim Diveroli, a hunkering gauche of a man, tacky and unhinged with slicked-back hair and a laugh that slivers out like the escaping air of an asphyxiated cat. Efraim is one half of War Dogs‘ weapon-shifting central pair, childhood friends who stumble into lucrative mega-contracts arming the war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Efraim has a massive Tony Montana print on his office wall, no doubt interpreting Scarface as a how-to manual in healthy self-actualisation (War Dogs’ marketing also rips off the famous colour inversion of Scarface’s poster). He’s a selfish scumbag, exactly the sort of person primed for success in the amoral fog of Bush-era war biz. And the film has no idea whether to clap its hands or wag its finger.

One of these is better than the other

David Packouz (Miles Teller) is a lost twenty-something making his living massaging Miami’s gated communities, until he reunites with old high school parter-in-crime Efraim at a mutual friend’s funeral. Efraim, who drives around with a machine gun in his trunk, lets David in on his scheme to get rich by pouncing on the open-bid government weapons contracts for Iraqi combat. They’re blaggers in tiny offices, hoovering up the deals the big guys couldn’t be bothered with, until they come to the attention of the Pentagon’s men in suits, and real wealth, the kind your wife finds wrapped in plastic under the sink, beckons. Efraim wears his obnoxiousness like fuck-you bling, but his partner’s assholery is a more clueless strain, an easily-impressed dupability that makes him soft prey. Teller doesn’t bring much charisma, which really defangs David’s arc of moral discomfort doesn’t convince, but he has the right face for the role. He seems to permanently not know what he is doing.

War Dogs is a real hodge-podge: a cautionary comic infomerical about institutionalised corruption (The Big Short); an American bootstraps satire about coke-snorting CEOs who give pep talks in boardrooms until the FBI comes knocking (The Wolf of Wall Street); a mad lad misadventure comedy with first-world douches getting into hi-jinks (Phillips’ Hangover trilogy). It feels haphazard. An amoral movie and a movie that’s about amorality are obviously different things, but threading that needle requires a level of tonal control that seems beyond Phillips, who resorts to formal quirks like dialogue title cards and Goodfellas-style retrospective voiceovers, which only slow down the rollercoaster energy a romp like this needs like this to keep your attention.

I can’t say I learned too much about modern private arms contractors, besides the established wisdom that ‘war is a racket’. I did learn other things though: that blasting an AK-47 in slow motion is dope. That suitcases full of cash are dope. That having a hot girlfriend with an accent is dope.

Just as The Hangover inspired a million witless wolfpack hashtags, it hasn’t hard to imagine extreme stag-do banternauts unloading AKs into desert dirt like colonial copies of Instagram Übermensch Dan Bilzerian, who actually shows up in the film, presumably playing himself. Fair play to Phillips for going for something more substantial, but the movie gets away from him. Cynicism about the world, and your characters, and the state of modern warfare may be all justified, and interesting subjects for your movie, but you gotta craft that shit.