WAR IS SERIOUS BUSINESS. MAKING RESPONSIBLE MOVIES DEPICTING WAR STORIES IS SERIOUS BUSINESS TOO. Making movies that have war as the schema above which their true stories are hovering and crafted but ride on humor is shades deeper serious work. The criminally underrated The Hunting Party (starring Terence Howard and the criminally underrated Richard Gere) comes to mind. Director Todd Phillips (best known for the raucous The Hangover trilogy) bases War Dogs on an article by Guy Lawson – who also spun a book, Arms and the Dudes: How Three Stoners from Miami Beach Became the Most Unlikely Gunrunners in History, on this story.
War Dogs opens right in the middle of a startling scene, with David Packouz (Miles Teller) kidnapped and pummelled, and then staring right into the face of a gun cocked at him. Much like so many snifty thrillers (Layer Cake being a brilliant example), Packouz begins telling his story in flashback. And using crackling dialogues, you’re introduced to his life as a masseur, of how, despite his much-in demand massages, he cannot revive his own flaccid fortunes. And the last knead on his aching life’s back is when his girlfriend, Iz (Ana de Armas) becomes pregnant, and Packouz feels he ought to take control of his life and finances. Enter his school buddy, Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) who, as Packouz discovers, owns a company named AEY, and trawls the US Government website that lists arms requirements for various conflicts that it is involved in across the world. While the major arms dealers pick up the meaty slices of the arms supplying pie, Diveroli rummages the site for the crumbs, toiling and moiling the phones all night and earning good money, the middle man for such deals. You don’t need to be Nostradamus penning the world’s most open-to-interpretation passages to guess that Packouz teams up with Diveroli.
Co-writing the screenplay with Stephen Chin and Jason Smilovic, director Todd Phillips moves the movie at a rip-roaring pace, the gags and jokes coming in at swift cadences. A dangerous chase scene in Fallujah suddenly bumps into a rear-view mirror gag that’ll have you guffawing even as you worry about the duo’s safety. But the director also bungs in an equally fictionalized but heart-stopping overnight journey that the duo makes from Jordan to Baghdad to deliver Berrettas to an American army camp. Phillips also shoots a very effective confrontation scene between Packouz and Iz, the camera voyeuristically moving around the pair, as the increasingly mortified former begins to realize how’s he about to lose his loved ones to the business of arms.
Of the cast, the stand outs are the Hill-Teller duo. Jonah Hill is sickeningly and effectively slick, his trademark thin-voiced artificial laughter pretty much defining his character and morals. Miles Teller is simply superb and extremely likeable, even as his performance keeps things on an even keel – and you discover that, despite his choices, you can’t help but root for him. Co-producer Bradley Cooper puts in a nice cameo as well, him a shiny, untrustworthy character, his colored glasses making his eyes look bigger and attaching themselves to the face of a dangerous man.
War Dogs also boasts of a soundtrack that’s used so very effectively. Sample this delectable playlist – there’s UB 40’s swilling Red Red Wine during a dinner party; Pink Floyd’s industrially cynical Wish You Were Here used to stunning effect in a scene that involves testing AK-47 ammunition; Creedence Clearwater Revival’s spunky Fortunate Son to mark the denouement of the Fallujah chase; and The Who’s devastatingly heartbreaking Behind Blue Eyes as it all comes down crashing down. Cliff Martinez has a ball composing the background score, and his piece in the aforementioned family confrontation scene is simply brilliant – using some bouncy pinging synth sounds that add to the drama. And I loved the opening ominous music piece that he orchestrates, reminding me of the equally ominous opening in Pink Floyd’s panic-inducing, chilling, Signs of Life.
War Dogs, then, isn’t a doofus project. Chances are, you won’t walk out of the cinema hall chuckling to yourself. You might notice a furrowed demeanor in the nearest mirror – for, how can you laugh when you know that the most incredible and dirty things in the movie are the truth – how the US government was forced to open up arms bids, no thanks to Dick Cheney’s corporations; of how, the world over, tax payers’ hard-earned money is thrown into ammo boxes and deleterious shipments. And then, as you see the chic and luxurious condo that the boys buy for themselves, you wonder, just for that brief, nano-second frozen moment of weakness – would you do it? And even as you shake off that feeling, you wonder how tempting and easy this is for someone who’s desperate and hungry for the good life. Fortunately, most of us would agree – to become war dogs, the dogs ought to be really crazy.
Watch the trailer of War Dogs here: