WAR DOGS (2016), the latest movie by HANGOVER trilogy director Todd Phillips, recounts the true story of friends David Packouz and Efraim Diveroli who became gun runners for the U.S. government during the Iraqi and Afghan wars.
The film opens with David Packouz (Miles Teller) lamenting that his life is going nowhere. He’s been working a thankless job as a professional massage therapist, and his business venture to sell bed sheets to nursing homes has fallen flat. He does have a beautiful wife Iz (Ana de Armas) but once he learns she’s pregnant he fears he’s not going to be able to afford having a baby.
Enter his best friend from school Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), who has returned to Florida to set up shop with his gun selling business. Efraim takes David on as a partner, and he explains to David how his business works, that he has taken advantage of a plan set up by the Bush administration which allows small businesses to bid on U.S. military contracts. Efraim explains that most of the huge contracts still go to the large mainstream weapons manufacturers, but even with the “crumbs” as Efraim calls them, you can still make a lot of money.
And they do. Within the first few months of working with Efraim, David is earning close to $300,000. And things only get more lucrative for them, especially after they travel to Iraq to personally deliver a truckload of Italian made berettas to the U.S. military, driving through a dangerous stretch of land known as “the triangle of death” to do it. After this stunning delivery, their reputation begins to grow.
They travel to Las Vegas to a weapons convention which Efraim calls “Comic Con with guns” and they decide to go all in as they try to secure their largest deal yet, as they learn that the U.S. military is attempting to arm the entire Afghan army. The job proves too large for them, until they attract the attention of the infamous and uber shady arms dealer Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper) who tells them he can get them all the ammo they need to pull off the deal, as it’s stashed away in Albania where the Albanian government is desperately trying to sell off its stockpile of ammuntion. Girard tells them he can’t do the job himself since he’s on a terrorist watch list.
Efraim and David agree to work with Girard, and they pull off their largest sale ever, earning them millions of dollars. Of course, they also enter illegal territory here, which eventually attracts the attention of the U.S. government.
As I said, WAR DOGS was directed by Todd Phillips, the man who directed the three HANGOVER movies, but don’t let this connection mislead you. WAR DOGS really isn’t a comedy. Sure, there are parts that you will laugh at, but for the most part its a gritty captivating drama about the shady world of gun running during the Iraqi war.
As such, I really liked WAR DOGS. The story works, thanks to sharp screenplay by director Phillips, Stephen Chin, and Jason Smilovic. It tells a riveting story, has some memorable lines, and does a nice job with the characterizations.
Sadly, we’ve been stuck fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since the early 2000s, but one positive—if you can call it that— that has come from this period is that it has provided a canvas for some pretty good movies. A lot of stories, nearly all of them tragic, have come out of these wars, and filmmakers have done an admirable job telling them, with films like AMERICAN SNIPER (2014) and THE HURT LOCKER (2008). You can add WAR DOGS to this list.
Both Miles Teller and Jonah Hill do fine jobs here. Teller has starred in the DIVERGENT series and the recent reboot of FANTASTIC FOUR (2015) as a very young Reed Richards, and of course he received high praise in the Oscar winner WHIPLASH (2014). He’s excellent again here. He’s perfect in the role, making David the everyday “normal” guy who gets involved with his best buddy’s shady business dealings for the right reasons- to support his wife and baby- and who sticks to his guns–heh heh– when things go south and refuses to throw out his principles.
While Jonah Hill is mostly known for his goofy comedies, he’s already shown acting chops in such films as MONEYBALL (2011) and THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013) so I’m not sure if this is his best performance yet, but it’s certainly a good one. In fact, Hill is clearly the best part of this movie.
He makes Efraim volatile, unpredictable, and a hoot to watch. As David explains, Efraim’s gift is he can make himself into the exact person that the person he’s trying to con wants him to be. As such, you can never trust him. Hill is great at capturing this part of Efraim. He also gained a lot of weight for the role, and he really becomes this character.
And Bradley Cooper is actually very good in a small role as the shadowy arms dealer Henry Girard. Sometimes when major actors appear in small roles you’re left wondering why? Not the case here, as Cooper gives this guy a demeanor that makes you actually like him.
Director Todd Phillips also gives us some memorable scenes, like the suspenseful trek across the Triangle of Death. I also liked the scene just before this sequence when David and Efraim have to negotiate with the help of a young boy translator to get their weapons into Iraq. The scenes in Albania were also sufficiently gloomy.
All in all, I really liked WAR DOGS, a captivating and entertaining film that plays like a cross between THE WOLF OF WALL STREET and AMERICAN SNIPER.
Its story of how David and Efraim were able to weasel their way into the lucrative cutthroat world of weapons distribution for the U.S. government and actually become major players in the arms dealing business will leave you shaking your head, questioning just how it was that the government encouraged this to happen in the first place.