War Dogs

(2016) ** 1/2 R
114 min. Warner Bros.. Director: Todd Phillips. Cast: Jonah Hill, Miles Teller, Bradley Cooper, Ana de Armas, Shaun Toub, Kevin Pollak.

/content/films/4953/2.jpg“Based on a true story,” the Todd Phillips comedy War Dogs frequently “improves” upon the truth, Hollywood-style. At its core, though, this twisted tale of American entrepreneurship—of young arms dealers gaming the Pentagon—captures something of runaway modern greed, played out as a bro movie from bro stars and a bro filmmaker that’s equal parts comical and infuriating.

Miles Teller stars as 22-year-old David Packouz (pronounced, if a bit suspiciously, “Packhouse”), who languishes, in 2005, as a massage therapist in his hometown of Miami Beach, Florida. Packouz reconnects with his old friend from yeshiva school, Efraim Diveroli, a power-mad, coke-snorting, Scarface-worshipping international arms dealer who offers Packouz a position in Diveroli’s outfit AEY. (In real life, Diveroli was an 18-year-old hotshot. On film, he’s corpulent 32-year-old Jonah Hill.)

Screenwriters Stephen Chin and Phillips & Jason Smilovic simplify Guy Lawson’s Rolling Stone article “Arms and the Dudes” into a sort of “International Arms Trade for Dummies,” but the streamlining mainstreams some interesting facts about the Dubya-era war machine—or, as Diveroli more accurately assesses, “God bless Dick Cheney’s America.” For instance, scrutiny of Cheney’s awarding of military-supply contracts to insiders forced the Bush administration to fashion a small-business initiative. This allowed tiny outfits like AEY to get into the game and make millions by underbidding the big guys on the smallest of the contracts up for bid on a publically visible website that, disturbingly, escaped public scrutiny.

“I live on crumbs, like a rat,” high-school dropout Diveroli tells college dropout Packouz, but those “crumbs” are big money. In voice-over, Packouz acknowledges the perception of the duo as “bottom feeders who make money off of war without ever stepping foot on a battlefield,” even as the script interpolates an adventure in which Diveroli and Packouz personally gun-run 5000 Berettas from Amman, Jordan to Baghdad, Iraq, finding themselves under heavy fire before hand-delivering the guns to a U.S. general for use by the Iraqi police force.

As in real life, though, the crux of the story is “the Afghan deal,” a $300-million contract AEY wins (by underbidding to the tune of $50 million) to enable the Pentagon to supply the Afghan National Army with a massive amount of firepower. Composite-character slight-of-hand and reworked details aside, War Dogs gives the general idea of the web of corruption, including the key role a slick, mobbed-up middle man (Bradley Cooper) plays in AEY moving an Albanian Cold War stockpile to Kabul.

In the hands of Hangover trilogy director Phillips, War Dogs annoys in a variety of ways: its halfhearted critique and sympathetic embrace of machismo and whatever-it-takes business savvy (the women in the story, uniformly P.Y.T.s, serve as sex objects and the buzzkill voice of morality), wall-to-wall use of overplayed source music (a Warner Bros. hallmark these days), and frequently sitcomedic joke constructions (Albania is “a beautiful place,” Cooper’s character promises; cut to blue-grey blight). Worst of all, the film pulls its punches against the U.S. government in ways Lawson’s article doesn’t.

War Dogs spotlights the apolitical domestic greed of military-industrial cash grabbing, heartily represented by Hill’s embodiment of same. His raging ball of id builds unstoppable momentum toward an inevitable crash, and it’s the backstabbing gun bros who pay, not the back-shooting government power-players. With a caveat: in need of a hero and perhaps identifying with a power-playing scammer, Phillips lets Packouz off the hook, since Diveroli’s greed proves more monstrous. In other hands, War Dogs might have been a fresh classic of political satire instead of a crime comedy that plays as sub-Scorsesean riff.

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