Jonah Hill and Miles Teller excel in this buddy crime drama that has an unfortunately mediocre plot, despite being based on an surprising true story.
Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) and David Packouz (Miles Teller) are childhood friends who reconnect at a funeral. David is drowning in his own mediocrity. He’s working as a masseuse while trying to find some way to move up in the world for himself and his pregnant lady, Iz (Ana de Armas). He also admires Efraim, who doesn’t take anything lying down even if he may be a less than upstanding character. Efraim is working as an arms dealer, selling weapons to the U.S. government for his own company, AEY Inc. Eventually, after seeing him struggle for a while, Efraim offers David a job working for him at AEY. Together, they scour government postings for small jobs that the bigger companies overlook.
AEY gets bumped up into the big leagues when they take a deal to send some hand guns to soldiers in the middle east. What they don’t realize until later, is that there is no way to ship the guns out of Italy to the soldiers. Desperate, they fly to the middle east and drive the guns there themselves (with the help of some locals that they pay off). The two friends are unaware that they just ran guns through an area known as the “triangle of death”, until they get to the base. Even so, their ambitious actions get them noticed. AEY business booms and they’re able to expand and live more comfortable lives. One night, David comes across a huge find: a listing for a huge stockpile of arms and ammo. The highlight of the listing is a request for a million rounds of AK-47 ammo.
Efraim and David head to a convention for arms dealers in Las Vegas hoping to find a way to cobble together the pieces for the order. However, they soon find that this kind of thing is too big for a small company like theirs to pull off. While in Vegas, David is approached by legendary US arms dealer Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper). Girard informs them that he can fill the entire order for them. He’s not allowed to actually do business with the US government because he’s on a terror watch list, so he needs AEY to front the deal. After some discussion, they agree to the terms and fly out to Albania to take a look at the AK-47 ammo. After verifying the ammo works, they enter an offer into the government. The offer is accepted, but they’re surprised to find out that they underbid the job by over $50 million of the next closest offer.
Things go sideways when David discovers that the majority of the ammo that they have is Chinese, which means that they can’t sell it to the U.S. because of trade embargoes. Efraim comes up with the idea to repackage the ammo in containers that will hide the true source of the ammo. Based on some advice from Girard, they are working under the assumption that the government doesn’t really want to know where the ammo comes from. The re-packaging actually ends up saving them a bunch of money on shipping, making the deal even more lucrative. However, that’s not enough for Efraim. He also decides that Girard is screwing them over by making money on the deal. Despite David’s disapproval, Efraim tries to cut Girard out of the deal. This leads to Girard kidnapping David and threatening his life.
At this point, David is done with AEY and the arms dealing business. He demands a buyout from Efraim, but Efraim destroys the contract that names them as partners in AEY and refuses to pay him. A few months pass and David, who is back to being a masseuse, meets with Efraim about a potential severance package. When Efraim low balls him, David blows up and reveals that he has records of every illegal thing that they did together. What neither man knows is that the meeting was a sting set-up by the FBI. They had been tipped off by the Canadian packaging company that AEY had hired to repackage their ammo because Efraim never paid them for their work. With David and Efraim on tape, they are both arrested and charged with fraud, among several other crimes. Efraim gets prison time, while David pleads guilty and is sentenced to a few months of house arrest.
After getting off house arrest, David is going about his life as a masseuse. One day he goes to a call and is surprised to find that his client is Girard. Girard summoned him there to apologize for his role in the Albania situation and to thank David for not implicating him when they were arrested. Girard also gives David the chance to clear the air. David surmises that Girard had been playing him from the very beginning, which Girard doesn’t deny. David is also curious about the fate of a driver that they had while in Albania. The man disappeared shortly before David’s kidnapping and had never been found. Instead of answering, Girard presents David with a briefcase full of money and the instruction to not ask any more questions.
What did I think?
This is a very entertaining movie, especially considering it’s based on a Rolling Stones article. Miles Teller and Jonah Hill are great in their roles, but it’s Hill’s character who really drives the movie forward. Efraim is kind of the Tyler Durden to David’s Narrator (Ed Norton’s character). He’s wild, debauched, slightly unpredictable. In Efraim, David sees all the things that he wishes he could be. But Efraim isn’t just what David wants him to be. Despite playing the role of his friend, Efraim is really a silently dangerous character. The movie actually does a good job at hinting at the idea that David should be more wary of Efraim than he is. Of course, by the end of the movie, David figures that out for himself.
I also loved some of the smaller performances in this movie. Specifically Ana de Armas and Bradley Cooper. Based on the previews, I was expecting Cooper to come in playing a suave salesman type, but his character was much more nuanced. Girard was slick, confident and inviting while still having a simmering sense of imbalance and malice behind him. Someone you can tell is scary, even though most things about him suggest that he’s probably an okay guy. On the other hand, Armas was a very warm and inviting presence on screen. I was impressed with her more because she made an impression on me despite her character having very little development and only being there to point out David’s corruption. Normally, I’m annoyed by this kind of one-dimensional use of a wife or girlfriend, but I think she was delivered with a true sense of caring about David.
The movie’s plot was probably what let it down the most. Even though many of the characters are engaging, they are woefully underdeveloped. There’s almost never a point where the movie tries to investigate who they are past the present moment. For the first half of the movie, I think it works pretty well. Things are happening so quickly and time is moving so fluidly, that you don’t really stop and ask yourself those questions. It’s when the movie starts to get to it’s bigger conflict that I started to realize how shallow things were. That was mostly because I couldn’t find a real sense of the effects of the conflict between David and Efraim or David and Iz because I realized that I didn’t really know much about them. It felt like I was being told a story from a 3rd hand POV as opposed to hearing someone tell a story that they had experienced first hand.
Despite the lack of depth, the movie does do a lot of other fun things. I particularly enjoyed the gimmick of putting up lines of dialogue on the screen that would come up in conversation later. The ones I can remember are, “All the money is made between the lines”, “When has telling the truth ever helped anyone” and “God Bless Dick Cheneys’ America”. It really kept me engaged with the scenes because I was trying to figure out what those lines could possibly have to do with the current scene. Then, when the line actually came up, it actually helped focus the scene in my mind. There was also a seamless comedy in this story. In a movie about gun runners and international fraud, it could be tricky to try to slide comedy in without making it feel forced. Mostly thanks to Hill’s character, War Dogs is able to pull that off.
After a few years have passed, I don’t know that this movie is really going to be thought of by a lot of people. More than anything else, I think it will be used as a marker for the careers of Bradley Cooper, Miles Teller and Jonah Hill that people can point to as a strong entry into their filmographies.
War Dogs (2016)
- Outstanding performance from Jonah Hill with Miles Teller supporting him as the dramatic straight man
- Despite being underused, Ana de Armas is eye catching in her role.
- Great example of how to make an engaging and dramatic movie with a relatively simple semi-biogaraphical story
- While not a comedy-first movie, the jokes it has are really effective
- Because the movie does focus so much on it's two leads, lots of the surrounding characters and story elements feel underdeveloped