Jonah Hill and Miles Teller star as real life pair Efraim Diveroli and David Packouz who get rich courtesy of lucrative US government munitions contracts. Todd Phillips’ film is an oddly dull, humourless affair given the shady white collar war profiteering that inspires it.
Inspired by true events first popularised in Guy Lawson’s 2011 Rolling Stone article (which was later expanded into the book “Arms and the Dudes”), Todd Phillips’ film employs plenty of creative license to dramatise a story of go-getters who against the odds win a US Army contract worth $300m to supply weapons to the Afghan army. It’s an oddly humourless tale from The Hangover director that, instead of satirically throwing some well-aimed punches at the US government’s shady military procurement policy, becomes insufferably dragged down by the horribleness of its chief protagonist.
Jonah Hill is that man. Here he portrays the real life Efraim Diveroli, a nasty piece of work who has got rich selling arms through lucrative government contracts. He’s a white collar con artist, adept at playing a role to satisfy his greed. He even does it with his “best friend” David Packouz (Miles Teller) who is attracted to the overnight-millionaire schemes of his rotund childhood acquaintance after his girlfriend reveals she’s pregnant (in one of several overly convenient plot turns). The pair make easy money and begin to build their empire before extending themselves, and their friendship, too far with a huge deal to supply munitions into Afghanistan that proves more a than a little problematic.
There’s a lot of interest in Diveroli and Packouz’s story, it’s just a shame Phillips brings none of it to War Dogs. The murky efforts of the Pentagon to arm militias in Iraq and Afghanistan is troubling background noise, while Bradley Cooper’s mysterious arms dealer Henry Girard, based on the real life Swiss munitions businessman Heinrich Thomet, is a caricatured gangster, for example.
Hill gives it his best but Diveroli is a one-note prick from minute one to one-hundred making it a genuinely laborious task to find an emotional resonance in the pair’s activities. You empathise more with Teller’s Packouz but the portrayal of the dollar signs that “ding ding” in his eyes to kickstart the film betray an intelligence he clearly enjoys. Indeed, there are some decisions he makes in the film that feel motivated solely by the need to preface later conflicts; artificially servicing plot, not character.
For a director like Phillips, known for his knockabout bromances and outlandish comedy, War Dogs feels like an uncomfortable, and awfully dull, departure. There is a much-needed sobriety here in comparison to his other films such as Old School and Road Trip but it lacks the nuances of satire to properly address the misdemeanours of its bleach-toothed arms dealers.
Tonally, it’s never an outright comedy but that doesn’t prevent War Dogs from feeling overly artificial. The gaps are filled with melodramatics (Packouz’s relationship with his girlfriend and their newborn) while Phillips’ heavy hand makes it difficult to digest some of the sombre revelations (like the lives trampled on by the pair to earn their riches, and the people who disappeared after helping them) that are overlooked in favour of piecemeal plotting charting the rise and fall of another American Dream.
Written by Dan Stephens
Top 10 Films reviewed War Dogs on Blu-ray courtesy of Warner Home Video which released the film on DVD and Blu-ray December 26, 2016.