The Hangover director Todd Phillips takes things a notch darker with this pitch-black comedy/thriller, an unbelievable true-life tale of two twenty-something pals (Miles Teller and Jonah Hill) who exploit a U.S. government initiative which allows for small businesses to bid on military contracts.
Serial under-achiever David Packouz (Teller) spends his days as a massage therapist for the wealthy and is just about scraping a living when he sinks what’s left of his savings into a scheme to sell Egyptian cotton sheets to the many retirement homes in Miami. Dismayed to discover that America doesn’t care enough about its elderly to invest in their bedsheets he’s at a low-point financially when his girlfriend (Ana de Armas) drops the bombshell that they’re to be parents. It is then that he is reunited with a former high-school buddy, Efraim Diveroli (Hill) who invites him to join his arms dealing company, AEY Inc. and with indecent speed the pair start raking in the dough thanks to the U.S. military and their tenacious sales spiel. But as the business expands their audacious bid for a huge contract sees them bite off more than they can chew as they find themselves entangled with a notorious arms dealer (Bradley Cooper) and Albanian gangsters, soon their friendship revels itself to be built on fragile foundations.
There have been complaints that the tone of War Dogs is uneven and the characters are hugely unsympathetic. It’s a perplexing argument, that we should like the characters to be engaged or that it should be a firmly fixed genre that we can neatly pigeon hole, comedy or thriller, apparently you cannot be both. Perhaps it is the presence of Todd Phillips’ name in the credits (and possibly the marketing campaign doesn’t do it many favours with its jovial poster), so synonymous now with the Hangover films and their increasingly outlandish gross out brand of comedy. That does Phillips a great disservice as he does a terrific job of balancing the very dark subject matter with the laughs and keeps the film moving at a cracking pace. Sure, it’s Wolf of Wall Street-lite - even going so far as to cast that film’s Jonah Hill in a similar role as a bad influence buddy - but the tale of two Miami Beach stoners actually being entrusted with providing arms to the mighty U.S. military is never anything less fascinating.
As the two main protagonists Teller and Hill are typically solid, Hill nabbing all the best lines and character traits, giving Efraim an irritatingly amusing shrill giggle he’s an unrepentant sleaze while Teller manages to inject some decency into his portrayal of the desperate to prove himself Packouz. Cooper does great work in a small role that shows Packouz what he could eventually become should he remain in the business, his embittered, shady arms dealer dispelling sage advice amongst his chilling threats.
Visually the film hits all the right notes as AEY inc. travel from bright Miami to dusty war torn Iraq through to the dreary concrete Albania. Phillips does, it has to be said, occasionally repeat his past style, opening with a key scene towards the end of the film before propelling us backwards to see how a character has arrived at that point, Hangover style but it’s a gimmick that works fine and the message that war is big business for someone lingers long after the laughs have evaporated into the night.
Outrageous, anarchic and way funnier than it ought to be, War Dogs is an energetic riot with two highly charismatic lead turns at its dark centre.