Badly marketed as an arms dealing comedy, “War Dogs” is actually a war profiteering drama. While the film’s poster parodies Brian DePalma’s “Scarface,” it mirrors another gangster movie. With a similar real-life event story origin, storyline arc and directing style, “War Dogs” resembles Martin Scorsese’s 1990 film “Goodfellas.” Is that high praise? You bet. “War Dogs” is one of this year’s best films.
I can see how the marketing got muddled. “War Dogs” is a dramatic departure for Todd Phillips, whose “Hangover” films made him a successful comedic director and, with Jonah Hill starring, the studio wanted to play up the comedic angle. However, Warner Bros. misinforms its intended audience- “War Dogs” is an engaging portrait of how two friends get so deeply embedded in hustling military contracts for quick cash that the high stakes put them in over their heads. Thanks to a smart script by Stephen Chin (co-written by Phillips and Jason Smilovic, based on Guy Lawson’s Rolling Stone article “Arms and the Dudes”), “War Dogs” sucks you into its fascinating downward spiral where the successful become the screwed.
“War Dogs” begins in Miami, 2005: the Iraq war is being waged while childhood friends and “best bros” David Packouz (Miles Teller) and Efraim Diveroli (Hill) reunite after many years. Both men, now in their early-20s, find the years have been kinder to Efraim than to David. While Efraim has carved out his own profitable business, David ekes out a living as a masseur after dropping out of college. Coupled with bad investments and learning his girlfriend Iz (Ana de Armas) is pregnant, David is close to the end of his rope. Seeing his friend’s plight, Efraim offers David a job (Efraim needs the help and trusts David). We soon realize this job offer is simply more rope for David- as the film’s story begins to twist; the rope begins to resemble a noose.
What does Efraim do for a living? He’s a “war dog”- Efraim makes money off of war without being on the battlefield. In scouring a U.S. military website created to thwart Dick Cheney’s industrial monopoly, Efraim bids on government contracts offered to small businesses. Without the resources to go after bigger contracts, Efraim’s content to feed off of “the crumbs of the pie.” After David lands a contract to sell Beretta firearms to Capt. Santos (Patrick St. Esprit) in Iraq, David and Efraim must travel to Iraq and deliver them personally when Italy’s shipping embargo threatens to kill the deal. After successfully completing the sale, things start to get dangerous- Efraim begins to greedily eye the entire “pie.”
Like “Goodfellas,” after “making their bones” with the Beretta deal, David and Efraim bid for and win a $300 million deal to arm the Afghan military. With the help of a shady arms supplier Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper), they find they can make it work. Yet the Afghan deal begins to resemble the mechanics of “Goodfella’s” Lufthansa heist: complications and setbacks force David and Efraim to examine not only the reliability of the people they’ve become involved with but also if they can rely on each other.
I’ve referenced the “War Dogs” and “Goodfellas” story parallel, but there are more “Goodfellas” similarities: film direction that recreates Scorsese’s dolly shots and dissolves, David’s voice-over narration reminding us of Liotta’s Henry Hill, David’s girlfriend Iz being confrontational like Henry’s wife Karen, Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” on the soundtrack during a Christmas scene- all of this purposefully evokes “Goodfellas.” Since the two films’ plots have such strong similarities, Phillips uses Scorsese’s techniques to their best advantage- he smartly gets us to react to “War Dogs” the way we did with “Goodfellas” and we’re immediately engrossed.
In addition to Phillips’ work, the developed characters in “War Dogs” give the actors more to work with: as Iz, Ana de Armis gets to play more than the hapless girlfriend; as supplier Henry Girard, Bradley Cooper uses his small mysterious role to allow us a glimpse into the darker shadows of dirty dealings; as David, Miles Teller expands on what he did so well in 2014’s “Whiplash” by making us identify and root for a guy to overcome the obstacles ahead. But it’s with Jonah Hill that we get to see more of what makes him an Oscar-caliber actor: his portrayal of Efraim displays Hill’s acting knack for the hint of a hair-trigger temper (2013’s “The Wolf of Wall Street”) and the belief in seeing and taking advantage of what others cannot (2011’s “Moneyball”). In “War Dogs,” Hill makes these qualities twisted, showing the deluded thinking and manipulative behavior the real-life Efraim Diveroli must have exhibited- it’s a nice portrayal of a knowing sociopath.
If you’re looking for a movie in these waning dog days of summer, look no further than “War Dogs”- it really is “best in show.”