A breezy comedy about two idiots profiting from corruption, War Dogs sneaks past moral qualms in part because it’s based on a true story. Skimming the surface of events, the movie lets viewers indulge in fun without considering the consequences of a ruinous war.
During the Iraq War, nitwit hustlers David Packouz (Miles Teller) and Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) team up to exploit a directive ordering the Pentagon to open up the arms procurement process to small businesses. Working from a Miami Beach office, they scour the Internet for what Efraim calls “crumbs”—bids too small for behemoths like Halliburton to undertake.
David had been scraping by as a licensed masseur until his girlfriend Iz (Ana de Armas) got pregnant. Bankrolled by Ralph (Kevin Pollak), a cousin with a dry-cleaning chain, Efraim needs a fall guy. Naive as he is, David throws himself into the job.
But changing regulations keep thwarting the team. They purchase a shipment of Berettas in Italy just before a weapons ban prohibits transport to Iraq. The two are forced to smuggle the handguns across the Jordanian border, inadvertently driving through what soldiers call the “triangle of death.”
That success leads to larger deals, with Efraim recruiting a new staff and David trying to hide his work from Iz. A Pentagon decision to arm the Afghani army gives David and Efraim the opportunity to work with legendary arms dealer Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper). That’s how David finds himself at the mercy of gangsters in Albania.
As he did in his Hangover franchise, director Todd Phillips uses a bright, bouncy tone and a hit-filled soundtrack to detail kidnapping, murder and multimillion-dollar scams. David and Efraim (and Iz too) occasionally argue about, say, repackaging outdated Chinese ammunition to circumvent yet another ban. But for the most part, War Dogs breezes by the ethics of cheating family, friends, workers and entire governments.
And for the most part, it works. David and Efraim are just brazen and goofy enough to seem endearing. And by focusing on the nuts and bolts of their schemes—from forging invoices to setting up assembly lines—the movie doesn’t have to deal very closely with politics at all. That may help War Dogs do better than recent disappointments like Rock the Kasbah and Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.
Which doesn’t mean War Dogs shouldn’t have been better. Hill basically coasts through his role (a variation of his Wolf of Wall Street turn), hitting his laugh lines but not adding much more. Teller (who has been building some impressive credits) does a much better job as a striver who can see the wrong in what he’s doing.
As friendly and amusing as it is, War Dogs could have hit a lot harder.