By HEATHER TURK
Front Row Features
Todd Phillips may be best known for wacky comedies (“The Hangover” trilogy, “Old School,” “Road Trip”), but the writer-director gets a little more serious with his latest feature film, “War Dogs,” now available on DVD (Warner Bros. Home Entertainment, MSRP: $28.98), Blu-ray with Digital HD (MSRP: $29.98) and Ultra HD Blu-ray Combo Pack (MSRP: $44.95).
Based on a true story, the film follows two childhood friends (Miles Teller and Jonah Hill) who reunite in their 20s while attending a funeral in Miami. While Efraim Diveroli (Hill) has found success as an arms dealer, David Packouz (Teller) is struggling to make ends meet as a part-time masseuse duped into selling Egyptian cotton bed sheets to nearby nursing homes for some extra cash. When David finds out from his girlfriend (Ana de Armas) that he’s about to become a dad, Efraim, being the great friend that he is, offers him a job at his company, AEY Inc. David reluctantly accepts because, as Efraim points out, it doesn’t matter that he isn’t pro-war so long as he’s pro-money.
Efraim teaches David how to exploit a little-known government initiative that allows small businesses like AEY Inc. to bid on U.S. military contracts and soon the two are living the high life. They get in over their heads, though, when they land a $300 million deal to arm America’s allies in Afghanistan and end up working with a dubious international weapons dealer (Bradley Cooper) to fulfill the contract. When things don’t go as planned, David finds himself in the middle of some very shady dealings wondering just who is double-crossing whom.
Although “War Dogs” has all the makings of a typical Todd Phillips comedy (the film focuses primarily on male characters, the leading men go on a journey where plenty of hijinks ensue—albeit this time to Iraq), the movie is a bit darker than his previous projects. Sure, there are several laugh-out-loud moments, but since the film is based on a true story about gunrunners, the stakes are higher this time around than just some crazy bachelor party in Las Vegas. Phillips tries to break up the tension with some quotes throughout the film that serve as chapters of sorts, but those looking for the typical laugh-a-minute comedy Phillips is usually associated with should look elsewhere.
Teller, for once, doesn’t play the pompous character he often portrays in films and instead is fairly sympathetic as David. Sure, his actions become a bit questionable as the movie progresses (why is he hiding stacks of money from his girlfriend?), but viewers still feel like he’s just trying to do the noble thing and provide for his family even though he’s going about it the wrong way. Hill, however, plays Efraim so over the top that when his true nature is revealed, viewers aren’t all that surprised. The ultimate con man, Efraim is whomever he needs to be to get something done, though that premise isn’t nearly as humorous as it could have been with the usually funny Hill in the role. Even Efraim’s fake laugh isn’t very funny by the movie’s end.
Ana de Armas is the film’s true breakout star. Even though she doesn’t do much other than act as David’s moral compass throughout the movie, the Cuban actress steals every scene she is in with her radiant beauty and common sense. Cooper, meanwhile, is barely on-screen long enough to make any sort of impression, although he does get in a few good lines opposite Teller during the short amount of time he appears in the movie.
Clocking in at 114 minutes, “War Dogs” moves along at a decent enough pace to keep viewers’ interest throughout the majority of the film, although it does start to feel a little long toward the end. Oddly enough, that being said, the final act happens so suddenly that viewers will be left feeling like it was just thrown together to keep the film under two hours. While most of the questions audiences will have at the end of the movie are thankfully answered, viewers can’t help but want to know more about what David and Efraim are up to today.
Blu-ray viewers get the answer to that question—sort of—during one of the three special features included on the disc, “‘War Dogs’: Access Granted.” The extra features the real-life David Packouz, who tells his side of the story and how his childhood friend from synagogue (viewers learn that he and Diveroli didn’t like to pray, so they often hung out instead) suddenly returned one day with $1.8 million in the bank and a job proposition for him. Packouz, who now spends his time creating “cool gadgets for musicians” like the BeatBuddy guitar pedal drum machine, reflects on how having his mugshot plastered across “The New York Times” was “horrible” and how he wishes he had “kept another copy” of the contract he had with Diveroli and didn’t write so many incriminating emails. Additionally, viewers will find out that Diveroli still owes him millions of dollars (“I guess friendship does have a price, and the price is a few million dollars,” Packouz halfheartedly jokes). The featurette also includes interviews with the cast and crew as well as the writer behind the “Rolling Stone” article the film is based on, Guy Lawson, discussing the unbelievable true-life tale.
“General Phillips: Boots on the Ground” praises the movie’s director, Todd Phillips, and takes a look at how he prefers shooting on location versus using a soundstage. Viewers will not only hear about the many locations featured in the film—including Romania, Miami, Las Vegas and Morocco, the latter of which doubled as Jordan—but also the challenges of certain shoots, like filming in El Centro, California, in May when it was 95 degrees outside. The uncensored featurette includes a few fun facts about the film, too, like what influence Jeffrey Dahmer had on Bradley Cooper’s character and how Jonah Hill felt like his spray tan was “a misbehaving child” he constantly had to take care of on set, as he was always sweating it off.
Wrapping up the extras is the educational sing-along “Pentagon Pie,” which is also included on the standard definition DVD release. The animated extra (which doesn’t actually include words to sing along to) features two rats singing about how the “Pentagon pie” isn’t just for big dogs anymore thanks to FedBizOpps, the website that allows small-time vendors the chance to bid on real government contracts. The creative musical number basically recaps the plot of the movie in two minutes with the two rats representing David and Efraim and concludes with the rats committing fraud and ending up behind bars.
Sadly, the real-life Efraim Diveroli’s take on the whole situation is nowhere to be found among the bonus features. However, considering the ex-arms dealer filed a lawsuit against the studio over the film’s release citing misappropriation of his likeness rights, breach of a non-disclosure agreement and conversion of confidential and proprietary information, his absence really isn’t all that surprising.
Even though “War Dogs” is far from a bomb, the action-packed comedy-drama isn’t quite the blast it could have been. Nevertheless, the story it focuses on is interesting and worth a look on home video for those who missed it in theaters. “The Hangover” this is not, but “War Dogs” is probably on par with “The Hangover’s” lesser-loved sequels. Take that for what it’s worth.