A car pulls up in an icy industrial nowhere in Albania and men in long black coats get out, dragging an American stripped down to his underwear. He is narrating in the archetypal voice of Penthouse Forum, some variation on, “I never thought that a career in international arms trafficking would happen to me, but…” His name is David Packouz (Miles Teller) and he is a licensed masseur from Miami Beach. In voice-over and extended flashback redolent of warmed-over, badly watered-down Martin Scorsese, he will explain how he and his yeshiva buddy Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill, playing a less indelible numbers-crunching sociopath than he did in The Wolf Of Wall Street) made a killing on an initiative that guaranteed small businesses a share of government supply orders during George W. Bush’s second term.
After just a couple of years of work, they would land a $298 million Pentagon contract to supply munitions to the Afghan army—an order they would attempt to fulfill by repackaging embargoed Chinese ammo, leading to their downfall and federal prosecution. It’s a true story, sort of. As War Dogs tells it, it’s a story of trust and greed, less colorful and incriminating than what really happened. It comes down to two devil’s bargains. The first is between Packouz—whose initial plan to sell high-quality bed sheets to nursing homes betrays a stoner’s business sense—and the cutthroat, coked-up Diveroli. The second is between the two unlikely gun-runners and the Mephistophelean figure of Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper), based on their real-life “gray market” middleman, the globe-trotting arms dealer Heinrich Thomet. (In the film, they even meet him in Las Vegas, the city of sinful kitsch.)
Director and co-writer Todd Phillips (The Hangover, Old School) keeps a lackadaisical pace, jolted by the occasional thrown punch, burst of gunfire, or quick-cut close-up of Diveroli snorting cocaine. Hill is much older than the real Diveroli, who was only a teenager when he started dealing arms, and he plays the wunderkind as a bugged-out stare and creepy laugh coated in spray tan and hair gel. Teller’s Packouz—a composite of the real Packouz, who cameos in an early scene, and an associate named Alex Podrizki—is the every-slacker with a nagging conscience and a pregnant, anti-war girlfriend named Iz (Ana De Armas), who is initially kept in the dark about what Diveroli’s two-bit outfit, AEY Inc., actually does.
One might quibble with the way Phillips limits responsibility on the Pentagon deal by painting AEY as better businessmen than they actually were (they had defaulted on smaller orders and were already on the Department Of Defense’s illegal arms dealing watch list when they won the contract), while avoiding the darker sides of the story—the ones where whistle-blowing former subcontractors in Albania wind up dead under mysterious circumstances. But at least colluding with shadowy power-players to illegally sell outdated Cold War-era surplus in the name of the Bush administration teaches Packouz a valuable lesson about the importance of honesty in a relationship, so it’s not all that bad.
The problem of fact might be less germane if Phillips were crafting something more compelling than a meandering comedy dependent on its leads’ natural high-strung (and often high) rapport. Both have their funny moments, often swapping roles: Sometimes Packouz is the one freaking out over Diveroli’s blasé under-reactions (best in an invented episode that finds the two smuggling handguns into Iraq) and sometimes he’s the sane and rational one dealing with his business partner’s paranoia mania. But despite all the time War Dogs spends with these two characters, it never develops them past the initial impression that one is basically a good guy and that the other is bad news incarnate. It just takes Packouz, the incredulous narrator, damn near two hours to figure out everything he more or less laid out for the audience in the opening minutes.