Review: ‘War Dogs,’ Jonah Hill And Miles Teller’s Ecstasy Of Guns & Ammo

A number of different films popped into my head while watching Todd Phillips’ War Dogs. A few were from Martin Scorsese. Nicolas Cage’s Lord of War is an easy association as he starred as an illegal arms dealer, not unlike our protagonists here. And of course Brian De Palma’s Scarface; it is referenced several times throughout. I know these movie associations seem odd, because this is coming from the same filmmaker that gave us The Hangover trilogy. The marketing campaign has pushed that trilogy to capitalize on audiences thinking Dogs will be a similar-type comedy just with guns and a lot of ammo. Not quite a ringing endorsement, especially if you bothered to watch Part II and III of The Hangover. I’ll save you the time. Don’t.

Whenever a film is stamped with the label “based on a true story” just know that what you are about to see is a heavily fictionalized account of a particular event. The inspiration for War Dogs came from a Rolling Stone article titled “Arms and the Dudes.” Working in the grey area of arms dealing two friends in south Florida made millions. They were also in their twenties. Makes me regret how I spent my twenties.

Recounting this true story about carving his own slice of the American Dream is David Packouz (Miles Teller), a one-semester-and-done college dropout now licensed massage therapist working with nouveau riche clients, and trying to sell bedsheets to retirement homes in Miami. David isn’t offering the happy endings that some of his clients expect and his own happy ending has stalled on account he’s not a very good salesman and retirement homes aren’t looking to wrap their reptilian-skinned residents in 400-thread count Egyptian cotton.

The dilemma: Girlfriend Iz (Ana de Armas) tells him she’s pregnant.

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Enter Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), David’s best friend from when they were kids growing up. He’s recently uprooted from the west coast and returned home to Florida. Efraim was helping his uncle sell weapons, previously seized by the police, online. The two had a falling out, so he has made his way back to Miami where he continues to make money bidding on legal contracts to supply the U.S. military with equipment. The bids are small, grabbing the “crumbs” while the major players get a big slice of cake. He makes good money, but the confluence of events of Efraim needing help and David needing a job allows for greater opportunities. Efraim’s company, AEY Inc., starts to make major headway, and together they go from crumbs to cake. To ensure subtlety is not lost, a picture of Al Pacino as Scarface adorns one of the office walls of AEY. I think you can see where this is going.

War Dogs may carry Todd Phillips’ visual style, but the subject matter is another story. It’s like when Michael Bay took a break from the Transformers movies and made Pain & Gain, which is also based on a true events and about achieving the American Dream. Using David’s scattershot narration and breaking up the story with quotes that serve as chapter breaks, at least the comedy shows the dollars and cents when it comes to illustrating the means in which this gunrunning duo supplies American soldiers with the stuff they need, but they don’t always want to know how they got it. It’s a questionable practice, and hard to be on the right side of the law, but no one ever said Efraim and David were saintly entrepreneurs.

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Yo-yoing from chunky to slim to chunky again, Jonah Hill elevates the comedy, reveling as the sleazy Efraim. Imagine a greasy-haired, ear-grating hawker with the confidence to lure clients and land contracts. The role is befitting of Hill, seemingly channeling his co-star from The Wolf of Wall Street, Leonardo DiCaprio, with more than a nod to Scarface’s Tony Montana. Miles Teller’s David is the straight man of the team, and his bland personality works well against Hill. But his personal scenes with Iz, by comparison, are dull. If Todd Phillips was going for a drama with shades of comedy, these scenes would be the backbone of the narrative, not a stopgap before Efraim and David land another lucrative contract that will require harebrained shenanigans to complete.

War Dogs may not be as aggrandizing as The Wolf of Wall Street or Scarface but it’s not at all what I was expecting from a Todd Phillips movie, or what the advertisements make it out to be. With a soundtrack that includes our protagonists smoking weed to Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion,” traveling abroad to Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger,” and running guns through Iraq’s Triangle of Death as CCR’s “Fortunate Son” blasts aloud as choppers fly overhead, it would seem someone has serious love for Scorsese pictures (or classic FM stations). The reliance of these tracks helps define the ecstasy that comes from running guns and ammo.

It may shoot blanks at times, but War Dogs is not your usual summer comedy. For those looking for something darkly comic you may want to pull the trigger and see it.

Score: 7/10

Director: Todd Phillips
Writer: Stephen Chin and Todd Phillips & Jason Smilovic; Based on Guy Lawson’s Rolling Stone Article “Arms and the Dudes”
Cast: Jonah Hill, Miles Teller, Ana de Armas, Kevin Pollack, Bradley Cooper
Rating: R (for language throughout, drug use and some sexual references)
Running Time: 114 minutes

For more on War Dogs catch Nicole Pollack as she interviews stars Jonah Hill and Miles Teller.

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