Crime films don’t normally look like War Dogs. Crime in film is, traditionally, domestic. It’s fighting for territory in the city; it’s woven into an urban landscape. But there’s more than one way to be a criminal, and director Todd Phillips takes it international with his latest film. Based on a true story of two young guys who found a way to exploit the American military’s reliance on cheap defense contractors during the second Iraq War, War Dogs is cutting, incisive, fast-paced, irreverent, and hilarious. Showcasing one of the best performances of Jonah Hill’s career along with another quality turn from Miles Teller, War Dogs may ape the style of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, but it wears the suit very well.
David Packouz (Teller) is a miserable massage therapist working in Miami Beach in 2005 when he meets up with his best friend from junior high, Efraim Diveroli (Hill). Unlike David, who is scraping by on $75 per massage after a failed attempt to sell bed sheets to nursing homes, the foul-mouthed, crass Efraim is rolling in cash after seizing on the U.S. military’s need for hardware in the Middle East. The two decide to partner up, but as David soon discovers, being a small outfit and relying on the crumbs of defense contracts means cutting some corners and engaging in some shady practices. As Efraim and David’s business grows, their friendship is tested as the greedy Efraim puts David into greater danger.
Although Efraim has a gigantic Scarface poster in his office, Phillips wears his love for Goodfellas on his sleeve. If David weren’t so hopelessly lost at the beginning of the film, it may as well begin with the narration, “As long as I could remember, I wanted to be an arms dealer,” which is probably what would kick off the story if it were told from Efraim’s point of view instead of David’s. But the skillful use of voice over combined with lots of needle-drops makes the comparison to Goodfellas inevitable. While such imitation can usually be grating, Phillips makes it works to his advantage because he’s drastically changed the setting of his crime film.
Envisioning the War on Terror as fertile ground for a crime story is a little genius, and Phillips fully embraces his unique setting and premise. Rather than make overarching statements like “War is a crime” or “the second Iraq War was a crime,” War Dogs has a far more cold-hearted and cynical take: “War is an economy.” When David and Efraim look at soldiers, they don’t see men serving their country; they see dollar signs.
It’s a bit of a shame that War Dogs didn’t come out during the Bush administration; Efriam yelling “God bless Dick Cheney’s America!” would have a bit more punch then than it does now, but it’s important that we don’t bury this part of our history. Phillips doesn’t try to re-fight old battles and this isn’t an anti-Bush screed, but it is very much the story of how larger government inaction and lack of oversight allowed two hucksters like Packouz and Diveroli to prosper. War creates a ripple effect, and if no one is asking the right questions, then two unethical guys can become instrumental in profiting off the war effort.
Rather than pontificate or preach about the war, Phillips keeps us wrapped up in David and Efraim’s lifestyle. It’s a dark story that’s played with a lot of lightness and humor, and that irreverence fuels the overall attitude of the picture. Phillips has taken one of his greatest assets—showing characters having a good, raucous time—and translated it into a morally questionable arena where you’re forced to consider if you would, given the chance, make the same choices as David. That’s the clever sneak attack of War Dogs: most of us would never want to be gangsters because we don’t want to kill people; but we might be okay with selling the weapons that people in a far off land can use to kill each other. We can see that the closer David gets to the action, the more uncomfortable he becomes, and the indictment of the viewer is that we’ve seen the war in the Middle East from a distance. There’s no draft and media coverage is tightly regulated.
This allows War Dogs to be a largely guilt-free concoction, although you won’t be able to shake the undercurrent of discomfort that runs throughout the picture. It’s a movie that’s a lot of fun, and yet it should make you a little uneasy to see that not only Efraim and David succeeded, but that the system allowed them to become incredibly wealthy and powerful even though they were just living off the crumbs. If Phillips had focused more on the weight of the conflict, it would be a war movie; but it’s a breezy crime film and I applaud his subversion.
He’s also helped tremendously by Hill’s performance. Hill continues to grow as an actor and he’s perhaps one of the most underrated actors working today. It’s incredibly easy to dismiss him as the same guy from Superbad, but Hill has grown remarkably over the past ten years. He’s still painfully funny, but the dramatic work he brings to his performances really shines. He can be restrained like his turns in Moneyball or True Story, or when he lets loose like he does in War Dogs, it can be hypnotic. Efriam is a total sociopath, but Hill injects the role with surprising amounts of loneliness and desperation. When he gives his high-pitched, affected laugh, you get the sense that Efriam is doing it because he wants to be perceived as normal, not because he can actually feel joy or humor. Hill could have just done a more adult version of Seth from Superbad or Noah from The Sitter, but he really digs into the darkness of Efriam’s character and comes out with a performance that’s equal parts humorous and disturbing.
While Hill steals the show, Teller provides admirable support playing the straight man of the piece. It’s the less glamorous, less flashy role, but it’s essential to why War Dogs works. The audience knows we’re not Efriam, and the audience doesn’t want to be a sociopath like Efriam. What we want to know is if we could be tempted like David is tempted, and Teller makes us believe that we could. This is a fine everyman performance by the gifted young actor, and he’s smart enough to know that his purpose isn’t to outshine Hill but to serve the larger picture.
And that larger picture is the best Phillips has ever done. While The Hangover is more rewatchable and more entertaining, War Dogs is more ambitious and it shows an impressive level of growth for the director. His party aesthetic makes the setting come alive, and it fits well with the irreverent story he’s telling. While it would be tempting to write off Phillips after his failed Hangover sequels, War Dogs shows that he’s not done surprising us.
Although the movie isn’t without its faults, especially as it starts to drag in the third act where the twists and turns become a bit predictable and dictated by the tropes of the genre, War Dogs is still an unexpected success. It’s an unconventional crime narrative told with biting humor and a flippant attitude that ironically make its critiques even more devastating.