We begin with our narrator in a very bad place, facing some very bad circumstances.
Thugs are screaming at him in Albanian — which makes sense, seeing as how they’re in Albania — as they punch and kick him in a desolate parking lot. Then he’s looking up at the barrel of a loaded gun, and the screen freezes, “Goodfellas” style, and off we go with the flashbacks and the darkly comedic stuff set to classic rock tunes, and more freeze-frame moments used as devices for the narrator to introduce various colorful characters along the way.
If “War Dogs” director and co-writer Todd Phillips didn’t study from the Martin Scorsese playbook … well, come on, there’s NO WAY he didn’t study from the Scorsese playbook in making this slick and sometimes glib but undeniably entertaining, wickedly funny and justifiably cynical satire.
Based on a Rolling Stone article (and subsequent book) by Guy Lawson titled “Arms and the Dudes” that if anything is even more insane (and much more complicated) than the story laid out here, “War Dogs” is a fictionalized telling of the astonishing true-life story of two twentysomething, pothead, self-appointed arms dealers who started off as small-time bottom feeders and quickly worked their way up to scoring a $300 million government contract to supply ammo to U.S. troops in Afghanistan in the 2000s.
War, what is it good for? Absolutely money. That’s the political and ethical stance taken by just about everyone in this story. If you’re looking for heroes, you’ve entered the wrong movie theater.
Miles Teller, solid as you’d expect in a slightly underwritten role, plays the aforementioned narrator: one David Packouz, a quintessential everyman who’s eking out a living as a massage therapist in the Miami of the mid-2000s while trying and failing at side attempts as an entrepreneur, e.g., selling high-end bed linens to facilities for the elderly.
This being the movies, sad-sack David has an exotic, impossibly beautiful and devoted live-in girlfriend named Iz (Ana de Armas), whose function in this story (SPOILER ALERT!) will be to wear tank tops and short-shorts, reveal the results of a pregnancy test at a key moment in the plot, and look amazing in close-up shots as he reassures her everything is OK, even as he’s taking a phone call during the sonogram and disappearing on mysterious overseas trips. It’s a wonder the script didn’t give her the name of “GIRLFRIEND ROLE.”
If you thought Jonah Hill gnawed on the scenery in Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street,” he actually takes it up a notch as David’s best friend from childhood, Efraim Diveroli, who returns home for a funeral as something of a bad-boy legend, reconnects with David and quickly talks him into working at Efraim’s fledgling, small-time arms dealer business.
From the flashy wardrobe to the over-the-top outbursts to the snappy patter to a signature laugh clearly designed to induce audience response, Hill is a universe away from his small-ball excellence in “Moneyball,” but it’s a performance that serves the character well. We instantly glean Efraim is a con on top of a lie on top of another con, but we also get a kick out of his blunt charm, and we respect, if not admire, this guy’s ability to get things done even when he’s in so deep he should be drowning.
Wars are raging in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Bush administration is outsourcing military operations large and small by listing contracts on a website known as FedBizOpps. The ever-hustling Efraim and the industrious David explore hundreds of documents to find deals where they can undercut bids by the big boys such as Lockheed Martin. They broker deals to supply U.S. troops with helmets, combat boots, ammo, weapons — you name it.
The invaluable Kevin Pollack does his “give me three or four scenes and I’ll nail it” thing as the Jewish owner of 14 Miami-area dry cleaners who puts up large chunks of seed money because he believes Efraim’s B.S. about how the boys are engaging only in deals that help defend Israel.
Director Phillips’ “Hangover” buddy Bradley Cooper has an extended cameo as a major player in the shadows who takes a liking to David and Efraim, and opens the doors to the big time. (Cooper’s such a strong actor he’s able to sublimate his movie-star power and integrate himself into the story without his presence becoming a distracting gimmick.)
The classic rock music cues are sometimes baffling — though I suppose it could be argued Phillips opted to use Credence Clearwater’s Revival’s rousing anti-war anthem “Fortunate Son” in a scene seemingly celebrating essentially cause-free military firepower as some sort of counterpoint. (My guess is not everyone will see it that way.)
And even though “War Dogs” sometimes glosses over David’s too-easy slide into greed and corruption, things take a serious turn in the final act, and rightfully so.
This is a solid example of the Sobering Comedy, where we laugh consistently at the madness onscreen, all the while lamenting how it’s rooted in real-world reality.
Warner Bros. presents a film directed by Todd Phillips and written by Phillips, Stephen Chin and Jason Smilovic, based on a Rolling Stone article by Guy Lawson. Running time: 114 minutes. Rated R (for language throughout, drug use and some sexual references). Opens Friday at local theaters.