WAR DOGS Review

As the wise one, The Notorious B.I.G., prophesied long ago, "the more money we come across the more problems we see." Though Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) lived his life by the codes taught to him in 1983's Scarface it was this piece of knowledge spit in the 1997 hit of the same name by B.I.G. himself that ended up resonating most in Diveroli's life. Diveroli comes to learn this wasn't just a catchy phrase spurned by a rags to riches hip hop artist, but that those words carried real weight in the fact that the more wealth one begins to attain that jealousy and envy are things that simply come with the territory. In War Dogs, director Todd Phillips (Old School, The Hangover) along with co-writers Jason Smilovic (Lucky Number Slevin) and Stephen Chin have taken the incredibly outrageous true story of Diveroli and his childhood best friend David Packouz (Miles Teller) and turned it into something of a strange hybrid of a war drama and comedy where the drama and comedy is inherent to the situation when one has two stoners who become big-time weapons traders. As troublesome as it may be, it is indeed a true story lifted from the article originally published in Rolling Stone by Guy Lawson. It is at one point a case study in all that is wrong with government procurement systems done in satirical fashion as it also criticizes government procurement systems by exploiting how easily two twenty-somethings from Miami secured millions of dollars' worth of weapons contracts from not only the Pentagon, but to arm America's allies in Afghanistan. While Phillips and his co-writers are certainly quick to ridicule and expose this process for how asinine it would seem to give such power to any such individual who wants to sell guns and ammo the writer/director is also quick to supply a throughline of the benefits provided these two young men and the lessons and knowledge they no doubt retained even if much of their time was spent snorting cocaine and hanging out in clubs when they should have been in the office conducting business given it was midday in most of the countries where their clients were located. Phillips simultaneously wants to celebrate that such individuals were able to pull off something as massive as they did, no matter how circumstantial it ultimately was, while at the same time exposing the government for how loosely and even thoughtlessly it spends the tax payer's money. Still, War Dogs isn't a highly political film and it certainly doesn't have its head in the clouds about ideas or themes it could potentially relay from the insane situation it chronicles, but by more or less delivering a straightforward account of the story and allowing the characters and situations to speak for themselves the larger implications are automatically present.

David (Miles Teller) and girlfriend Iz (Ana de Armas) face some tough times and difficult decisions in the beginning of War Dogs.
We are introduced first to our narrator Packouz as the story begins in 2008 with Teller's character being dragged out of the trunk of a car with a gun pointed at his head. Who is this guy and how did he come to be in this situation? Phillips then Tarantino's the flick and takes us back three years prior to the summer of 2005 when 50 Cent was just breaking out and Packouz was working as a massage therapist for $75 an hour. While rubbing rich dudes for money wasn't exactly in line with his aspirations Packouz also dumps all his money into high quality/low cost bed sheets that he plans to pitch to every retirement and nursing home facility in Miami (which is a lot) in hopes of cashing in on the need to comfort our elderly. It is when Packouz learns no one cares about old people and subsequently runs into his childhood friend, Hill's Diveroli, who has come back to Miami after a falling out with his family that things begin to start looking up. Packouz also has a beautiful and loyal girlfriend in Iz (Ana de Armas) who gets pregnant as he is hitting his lowest point, further pushing him to join Diveroli in his arms dealing business despite Iz's opposition to the current war. Connected by this bond of memories and nostalgia for both their childhood and Scarface Diveroli and Packouz become this dynamic duo of sorts in the arms business-going to any lengths necessary to guarantee the delivery of their product and thus continuing to build a reputation. In the beginning, as so many stories of greed and malice go, Diveroli wasn't looking for a big piece of the pie. When Packouz is brought on he is under the impression Diveroli weeds his way into several hundred thousand and smaller million dollar deals by picking up the bread crumb deals that the major weapons companies tend to ignore. Naturally, as time goes on and heads grow bigger the boys are hungry for more than just a few crumbs. This is where the movie succeeds most as never does it feel the pacing or structuring of the story succumbs to typical conventions of a narrative of this nature. Rather, War Dogs only continues to raise the stakes-with the help of an excellently bespectacled Bradley Cooper- the film keeps going one step further or adding another layer to the convoluted plans Diveroli and Packouz develop to get out of one spot and into another. That is, of course, until their inevitable downfall when they allow those qualities Biggie warned of to get the best of them.

Maybe the most telling thing about War Dogs is the fact it is indeed a Todd Phillips production. Given this truth combined with the type of story he is telling it is somewhat of a given the type of movie we're going to receive. It would be something in the vein of Pain & Gain I assumed given Phillips is as vulgar and abundant with his comedy boundaries as Michael Bay is when it comes to explosions, but while War Dogs is a rather deft account of a clever scheme on its own terms what might be most surprising about the final product is that it's not exactly laugh out loud funny in the fashion we've come to expect from the director. This isn't a collection of scenes set up to provide situations in which humor can easily be devised, but rather this is a true story in which the humor would need to come from the characters personalities and the characters' friendship that might naturally produce an abundance of chemistry and comedy. Though both Hill and Teller are more than gifted performers and certainly rather effective comedians War Dogs isn't a movie you'll be quoting three or four months down the road. It isn't belly-laughing funny in the way audiences typically imagine when sharing in the experience of a comedy. It isn't a broad comedy at all. Rather, War Dogs is a bizarre and largely outrageous war drama that just so happens to feature a pair of funny dudes. In this reality it comes down to the performances of our two leads to carry much of the credibility for the audience to buy into this true story and by and large both Teller and Hill are up to the task. It is Hill who clearly runs away with the film though, as he is not only given the flashier more colorful role to play, but much of what he brings to the table couldn't have been on the page. Whether it be the fact Diveroli keeps his tan in check or has a distinct laugh that can be sparked by the most inappropriate of moments Hill incorporates these ticks and quips to the point that when Diveroli is on screen you can't take your eyes off him; you can't wait for what he might say next. On the other hand, Teller is given little to work with other than being the straight man who must deal with the pressure of a pregnant girlfriend and her disapproval of his job. Admittedly, this relationship is developed more than initially expected and de Armas and Teller have nice chemistry that lends real history to their relationship. While Teller does a commendable job in the part there is nothing in the character to question or be curious about which ultimately works when you need a reliable narrator and the other half of your equation is an egomaniac who figures out who someone wants him to be and becomes that person.

David joins forces with childhood friend Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) to provide the U.S. government and its allies with the necessary weapons.
Most of what I love about War Dogs though, comes from the fact that it is a Todd Phillips movie. The guy has a knack for capturing images and more specifically his subjects in ways and compositions that are effortlessly cool. Whether it be the sun drenched locations in Miami where the director really takes cues from Bay and infuses every frame with as much saturation and loud colors as he can to the third act that largely takes place in a washed out Albania-there is an edge to the imagery that is undeniable with the score from Cliff Martinez both undercutting and complimenting the tone of the film-much like the film does the real life story in which it is fictionalizing. Whether it be keen shot choices such as focusing in on the "Objects are Closer than they Appear" warning that is standard on most outside rear view mirrors before changing the focus to reveal a caravan of men with guns speedily approaching our protagonists or the structuring of the film through pull quotes that give us an inclination of how much we've yet to see-it all just comes across cool without being smug. As the circumstances only get more intense and the situations these guys find themselves in more insane Phillips finds a nice way of easing the audience into the uneasy tension of the final act. With the Albanian situation growing more complicated and more illegal a wedge is driven between Diveroli and Packouz in a fashion where we wait nervously to see how this tension will finally rear its ugly head. Knowing the direction we're heading in, but being unsure of the details of that direction is strangely anxiety-inducing. Painting this picture of two guys who find themselves in situations too big for their comprehension levels Phillips brings about the impending doom by bringing us back to the scene in which the film opens and from there-with maybe twenty minutes left in the film-expertly hitting the character marks that have been in development for much of the movie and are now free to finally boil over. Doing business with people the U.S. government can't do business with directly is ultimately the name of the game-creating an economy based on war and the experiences it took to draw a naive Floridian out of our national comfort zone and into this ugly truth seems the objective of Phillips' film. Maybe the director is trying to wake audiences up to these realizations as well or maybe he's just trying to relay a crazy story about our world that is so scary it must be looked at in a humorous light to be digested. Either way, War Dogs leaves it up to the viewer to draw their own conclusions on these outlandish if only slightly embellished truths.