Movie News & Reviews

‘War Dogs’ is compelling and funny but plays it too safe: 2.5 stars

After getting thrown into a car trunk by masked intruders, David Packouz (Miles Teller) emerges to find “a very reliable weapon” pointed at his forehead.

He knows it’s reliable because he’s an international arms dealer. To him, guns, ammo and warfare are purely a commodity. But when facing the barrel of a loaded weapon, he gains a fresh perspective.

“War Dogs,” an entertaining biopic adapted from Guy Lawson’s Rolling Stone article “The Stoner Arms Dealers,” offers the kind of implausibly flamboyant tale that Hollywood loves. Yet there’s also a familiarity that’s tough to ignore. We’ve seen this stuff before, and not just because the trailer gives away so much.

Following that opening abduction scene, the film flashes back three years to 2005, finding affable young David eking out a living by giving massages to wealthy Miami businessmen and trying to sell high-thread-count sheets to nursing homes. While at a funeral, he runs into childhood pal Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill). Vulgar, sweaty and bloated with bravado, Efraim reveals how he’s found a loophole that allows anyone to bid on small Pentagon defense contracts.

“Everyone’s fighting over the same pie while ignoring the crumbs,” Efraim explains.

When billions of dollars are in play, even the crumbs can make them filthy rich.

Considering it takes $17,500 to outfit the average American soldier — and combat rages in both Iraq and Afghanistan — they capitalize Dick Cheney-style on the country’s addiction to war. But as the size of the contracts increases along with the danger of fulfilling them, David wonders whether Efraim might be abandoning his humanity.

The partners learn “war dogs” are nicknames for “bottom-feeders who make money off war without ever stepping foot on the battlefield.” It’s amusing how overmatched they are. These guys may think of themselves as coked-up gangsters, as evidenced by their “Scarface” print that dominates each newer and swankier office. But it hardly prepares them for driving a truckload of Beretta handguns from Jordan to Baghdad through a section the military calls “the triangle of death.”

(Keep in mind the real Packouz and Diveroli were nearly 10 years younger than the actors who portray them. Diveroli wasn’t even old enough to vote when he brokered his first government contract.)

Director Todd Phillips of “The Hangover” hopes to do what Adam McKay did with “The Big Short,” mining the humor from greedy manipulation of the Bush-era system. He doesn’t take quite the gonzo cinematic approach McKay did, but he keeps things visually interesting via unflattering freeze frames and drug-fueled conversations glimpsed through night vision goggles as he zooms from Miami and Vegas to Jordan and Albania. (Or Morocco and Romania convincingly doubling for the latter.)

Working from a screenplay co-written with Stephen Chin and Jason Smilovic, Phillips takes the edge off the compelling material. The floundering loser David lives with a longtime girlfriend (Cuban actress Ana de Armas) so distractingly stunning that it would take a Beretta held to the forehead to convince audiences the relationship is genuine. Every scene she’s in reminds the viewer it’s only a movie.

The music selections make the viewer want to actually pull the trigger. “Sweet Emotion,” “Behind Blue Eyes,” “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” — the soundtrack rivals “Suicide Squad” for most melodic clichés per minute. (Both films include Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son,” so it looks like John Fogerty is the real profiteer.)

Similarly, the movie settles into the same narrative arc as a typical “Behind the Music” episode: total obscurity, a big break, massive success, utter collapse, optimistic coda.

That may be how the events legitimately played out for these stoner arms dealers. Sure feels safe, cinematically. And one thing the picture makes clear: Nothing is ever safe when it comes to war profiteering.

Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”

‘War Dogs’

  1/2

Rated R. Time: 1:54.

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