By HEATHER TURK
Front Row Features Film Critic
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 big-screen effort, “War Dogs.”
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.
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, though viewers could easily wait until home video to learn more about it if they don’t want to read the “Rolling Stone” article the movie is based on. “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.