Living in a 2005 America where President George W. Bush has, as one characters describes, "opened the floodgates in Iraq," 22-year-old David Packouz (Miles Teller) has been offered a lucrative job from childhood best friend Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) he can't possibly refuse. As online arms dealers, they can sell highly sought weapons to the U.S. military in exchange for more cash than they know what to do with. Theirs is a function that straddles the line between legal and criminal, but they get away with it because the very act of national security has become its own business. David makes it known he and fiancée Iz (Ana de Armas) are anti-war and anti-gun, to which Efraim concurs. It's not about that, he says. It's about taking advantage of the country's current clusterfuck of a system. It's about being pro-money.
With a doozy of a premise like this one, it is not surprising the fact-based "War Dogs," adapted from Guy Lawson's 2011 Rolling Stone
article "Arms and the Dudes," has been made into a studio feature. Writer-director Todd Phillips (2013's "The Hangover Part III
") and co-writers Stephen Chin and Jason Smilovic have spearheaded a film that glorifies Packouz and Diveroli's actions and excess before, as it must, turning their decisions and ultimate downfall into that of a cautionary tale. The inner workings of the company they start (called AEY, an acronym that stands for nothing) are enthrallingly laid out, the fun of the picture coming from watching them get away with things they cannot believe. The dramatic beats and overall trajectory of the script, however, run exceedingly familiar without offering the depth of one of its clearest inspirations, Martin Scorsese's dazzling 2013 docudrama "The Wolf of Wall Street
Miles Teller (2014's "Whiplash
") has the innate ability to garner sympathy even when he's portraying a character who is screwing up. His David Packouz is a savvy guy with a surprising talent for making deals, but he is increasingly in over his head and knows it. A college-dropout-turned-massage-therapist, David takes Efraim up on his proposed partnership when Iz reveals she is pregnant and concerns for their future suddenly become altogether realer. For a long time, he deceives his girlfriend, telling her they are selling bedsheets to the military. After coming clean, he repeats the same mistake when his travels to Iraq and Albania grow far hairier than he lets on. Teller is engaging and believable as David, and his chemistry opposite Ana de Armas (2015's "Knock Knock"), as Iz, is always apparent. The effervescent Armas is mostly there to be the love interest who reiterates she doesn't like being lied to, but she makes the most of an underwritten part.
As moral question mark Efraim Diveroli, Jonah Hill (2014's "22 Jump Street
") is excellent, adeptly keying into the nuance of a free-wheeling man whom the viewer isn't sure whether to like or distrust. Playing someone free of restraint or inhibitions, Hill finds a way to embody these characteristics while nonetheless delivering an understated rather than explosive performance. In a brief but crucial supporting turn, Bradley Cooper (2015's "Aloha
") turns up as Henry Girard, a powerful underground arms dealer whom David meets in Las Vegas, and Kevin Pollak (2011's "Big Year
") has some good moments as Ralph Slutzky, the owner of a dry cleaning business who backs the guys' operation.
Whether their David Packouz and Efraim Diveroli are best friends living the high life or butting heads as the party comes crashing down, Miles Teller and Jonah Hill are a charismatic pair in "War Dogs." With "The Hangover" trilogy behind him, director Todd Phillips tackles this more serious material with style and rhythm, aided by a legit soundtrack featuring Pink Floyd, Leonard Cohen, The Who, and a sly cover of Blue Öyster Cult's "(Don't Fear) The Reaper" performed onscreen by the real David Packouz. Confidently made but wading a little too often into convention, the picture contrives a handful of scenes in the third act that do not ring as honestly, including an obvious plot point involving a signed contract David leaves unprotected in his office drawer. If "War Dogs" is more larkish than hard-hitting, it does tell a pretty great storyone so preposterous it can only be based in truth.