War Dogs (Todd Phillips, 2016)
Todd Phillips is the man responsible for giving us all three Hangover films. I loved the first one but hated the second, and therefore avoided the third. As they went along (at least from #1 to #2), their humor degraded from boundary-pushing to just plain vicious, as the protagonists’ antics and attendant jokes grew more and more desperate to transgress at any cost. While it was easy to laugh off the loss of a dentist’s tooth in part one, the loss of a pianist’s finger in part two was not nearly as amusing. I shudder to think what happened in part three. Still, in that first film, anyway, Phillips demonstrated a solid ability to mix action and comedy that boded well should he find or write a better script.
And now we have War Dogs, co-written by Phillips, Stephen Chin (Another Day in Paradise) and Jason Smilovic (Lucky Number Slevin) – based on the true-life tale profiled in a Rolling Stone article, later turned into a book, by Guy Lawson – and starring Jonah Hill (22 Jump Street) and Miles Teller (Whiplash) as twenty-something arms merchants. It is that better script, funny where it should be and not afraid to tackle larger themes beyond the scatological: a bitingly satirical look at the way we operate our military conflicts, offering contracts to any and all comers without any moral concerns over the provenance of the weapons. As an opening montage makes clear, war is an economy, much as Dwight Eisenhower warned it would become; as long as the merchandise arrives on time and operates as expected, everyone’s happy.
Hill and Teller are Efraim and David, childhood friends who reconnect in their 20s. David’s stuck in a tailspin, working as a massage therapist in Miami Beach while he tries to get an ill-fated business project – selling quality sheets to nursing homes – off the ground. Efraim is just back from Los Angeles, where he and his father have been operating a gun-repossession business, selling confiscated weapons back to law enforcement (I think, but the details of that particular set-up don’t really matter). Now he’s ready to move on up to the big time, taking advantage of the U.S. government’s legal obligation to allow bids on weapons contracts to small operators in the wake of legal problems due to Halliburton subsidiary KBR previously earning all the money. He needs a partner, and David, about to be a father, needs better prospects. Soon, given the army’s never-ending demand for weapons and ammunition, they’re off and running, though an initial snafu sends them into an actual war zone to recuperate and then deliver a batch of promised guns. It’s in that sequence that Phillips brings his trademark mix of comedy and action most to bear, pulling off a series of tour-de-force moments that are both thrilling, hilarious, and very disturbing.
Eventually, the too-good-to-be-true scheme falls apart, but not before Efraim and David have made a lot of money and had a good time. They get in over their heads thanks to a shady international arms dealer played by Bradley Cooper (American Sniper), whose amorality makes Efraim and David look like Boy Scouts. Cooper is chilling as a man for whom nothing is off limits, even through (or perhaps because) he looks and talks like a hedge-fund manager. Both Hill and Teller are equally strong, and even Ana de Armas (Knock Knock), in an underwritten part as David’s girlfriend (and mother to his child), gets a chance to shine in a few select scenes. The movie is far from perfect – I wish it had kept its satirical edge right up to the end, rather than embracing a sentimental takedown of its ostensible heroes – but is made with such energy and brio, all the while illuminating the seedy underbelly of American arms dealing, that its flaws pale in comparison to what works.