Florida, 2005. With America fighting simultaneous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, two twentysomething high school buddies get rich quick dealing weapons. But their dubious legal practices soon catch up with them.
War Dogs is being sold as a comedy, and given that it boasts The Hangover director Todd Phillips behind the wheel, perhaps understandably so. But those hoping to see Ken Jeong leap naked from the boot of a car are liable to be disappointed. There’s plenty of darkly funny moments, but this is a largely serious movie about an entirely serious subject.
As a pacy opening spiel informs us, war is big business, and business was never more booming than during the go-go early 2000s, when President Bush opened the floodgates to small private arms contractors. Practically anyone could grab a piece of the pie — even a couple of flip-flop wearing stoners like David Packouz (Miles Teller) and Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), best friends at high school who reconnect. They’re only aiming for crumbs, but when you’re trading with the world’s largest military, a single crumb is worth millions.
There’s plenty of darkly funny moments, but this is a largely serious movie about an entirely serious subject.
Both Teller and Hill are about ten years older than the unlikely real-life arms dealers they portray, but they bring a fun, sleazy charisma to their roles. David is depicted as a somewhat reluctant merchant of death — an erstwhile anti-war protester, in fact, lured only by a quick buck and the chance to escape his unfulfilling job as a massage therapist.
Efraim, meanwhile, seems more typical of his trade. A high-pitched giggle never far from his lips, he’s a hustler, not above impersonating high-ranking military or grieving parents in order to get ahead. As we saw in The Wolf Of Wall Street, Hill does a good line in playing obnoxious douchebags, and he’s on top form here.
We watch in guilty delight as their company (named AEY — an acronym which “doesn’t stand for anything”, in more ways than one) slowly graduates from a smoky bedroom to a gleaming Miami Beach office. The crumbs of war profiteering grow ever meatier, and the duo’s methods grow ever shadier. All of this — the rise-and-fall crime narrative, the all-American lust for money at any cost, the “how did I get here?” narration — aims for Scorsese. It very nearly reaches it, too. It’s not as rich or sophisticated as Marty’s masterpieces, and visually it’s a little unambitious, but the gallows humour and the pace are there. One scene even manages to make the minutiae of cardboard-box negotiations entertaining.
Like much of Scorsese’s work, it’s heavily male-dominated, too. The only female character in the film is David’s disapproving girlfriend, who exists purely to fret from the sidelines, afforded about as much depth as a 9mm shell. (At least Bradley Cooper’s creepy arms dealer bluntly acknowledges the imbalance: “This is why I like the arms business — no women.”) Dick-swinging bravado is the film’s prevailing orthodoxy, and in the process, it occasionally struggles to impart the fairly significant human cost of war profiteering. Only in a single gripping sequence, when the pair rather naively escort a shipment of guns to Baghdad, do we get any sense of the devastating conflicts they are helping to furnish.
Amorality plays such as Thank You For Smoking (or, yes, The Wolf Of The Wall Street) gave their terrible anti-heroes just enough rope with which to hang themselves. War Dogs may not give these douchebags quite enough ammo to shoot themselves with, but it’s enough to give you pause.
Buoyed by riveting lead performances, and driven by a compelling real-life story, this is proof that Phillips can handle grown-up material. All without a naked Ken Jeong.