Jonah Hill and Miles Teller as penny-stock arms dealers selling to the U.S. military in Iraq? Directed by the guy who did the Hangover movies? The concept almost sells itself. War Dogs is mostly able to coast on that.
Basically, this is The Wolf of Wall Street or Pain and Gain, but with guns. Fast-talking salesmen with huge ambitions, starting from the very bottom. Instead of stocks or extortion, War Dogs deals in bullets. A whole lot of ammo that a couple of small-time arms dealers looking to step up to the big time wants to sell to the U.S. military.
The hook is “based on a true story.” And it’s an incredible story, based on a 2011 Rolling Stone feature. Two guys in their mid-20s who don’t really want to live a normal life — or at least settle for the income that a normal life typically yields — find one hell of a niche and milk it for all that it’s worth, until it becomes unsustainable. Actually, it was always unsustainable —especially for just a two-man operation — but the market and world geopolitics finally catch up to them.
David Packouz (Miles Teller) is making ends meet as a massage therapist in Miami, rubbing rich guys down but not really making enough to support him and his wife Iz (Ana de Armas) — especially with a baby on the way. So he wants to create a business for himself, and thinks he’s found his market in selling high-end bedsheets to the many, many senior living facilities that populate the Miami area.
Who wouldn’t want the elderly to sleep on the finest Egyptian sheets boasting the highest thread counts? The people who run those old folks homes. So David has a living room full of bedsheet boxes and can’t move them to anyone. He sunk his life savings into this venture and is broke.
Enter Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), David’s childhood friend who moved out to L.A. when they were teenagers. He’s come back to town after a falling out with his uncle (or stealing a bunch of money from him, depending on who you ask). The two old buddies meet at a mutual friend’s funeral and catch up on old times. David eventually admits that he’s made a huge mistake in trying to be the nursing home bedsheet king of Miami.
For Efraim, it’s exactly what he wants to hear at exactly the right time. While he’s happy to reunite with his old friend, he’s also running a fledgling business out of a single office. Unbelievably, his business is guns and ammo. Efraim has found a niche raking the bottom of the U.S. military’s online marketplace looking for arms deals.
No, he can’t sell RPGs and tanks to the military and outfit soldiers in Afghanistan. But he can work the margins. Rifles, handguns, bullets, helmets, body armor. He can buy that stuff at trade shows or on the black market, then turn it around to sell to the military who can’t supply enough equipment to its soldiers at war. Bush’s Iraq War is big, big business. Even someone trolling a tiny percentage of that market can make millions of dollars.
However, Efraim isn’t content to make a few thousand dollars selling assault rifles one deal at a time. He wants to get bigger, which is where David comes in. David can comb the online listings for the best small deals that they can fill, while Efraim supplies the demand. As they make more deals, they steadily grow and make more money. But of course, it’s not enough. Efraim wants to make big-time, multi-million transactions that outfit entire battalions in Iraq. It’s a matter of amassing enough capital to pull off such a deal.
Selling themselves as a legitimate arms dealer with a bullshit corporate name (AEY, an acronym that doesn’t really stand for anything), Efraim and David finally get their big score, selling a truckload of Beretta pistols with which the U.S. military wants to outfit the Iraqi army.
But with transactions this large — and really, this unethical — it’s not just a matter of we give you guns, you give us money. The guns are coming from Italy, which isn’t allowed to sell guns to Iraq. Therefore, the payload of pistols can’t be flown into Iraq. They have to be moved through different channels to avoid detection. So Efraim gets the idea to ship the pistols to neighboring Jordan, and he and David will then have them shipped into Iraq. Except when they can’t get the proper permits, the guns have to be driven into Iraq under cover of night.
Don’t worry — I didn’t just summarize the whole movie. Far from it. The Beretta deal only elevates Efraim and David to a higher tier of arms dealer. But they’re not equipped to handle their grand ambitions. They need help, which comes in the form of Bradley Cooper making an extended cameo as a favor to director Todd Phillips for making him a star in the three Hangover films. Cooper could make a career out of such small roles for Phillips and David O. Russell if he so chose. But this isn’t just a goof. As an arms dealer who’s an icon in the industry, Cooper clearly enjoys playing a bad guy.
If there’s a significant flaw with War Dogs, it’s that the story follows a very familiar narrative. Though the setting might be different, we’ve seen the characters played by Teller and Hill in different stories, but with similar motivations and story arcs. One is an inherently good person who decides to take a bad turn for personal gain. The other is inherently greedy and so dishonest that no one will stand in the way of his ambition. Eventually, both get in way over their heads.
Hill and Teller do make an entertaining on-screen pair, however. And that essentially carries the movie. The scenes between David and his wife try to ground the story and remind us why he’s doing this in the first place. But as appealing as de Armas might be (if she becomes a star, we’ll look back at this role 10 years from now and shake our head that this was her entry into mainstream Hollywood), she just makes it more apparent that the movie is far more interesting with Teller as the straight man and is much better when Hill is with him. The movie sorely misses him when he’s not in it.
Yet it’s not Efraim’s story, despite his force-of-nature presence. You can see the fundamental issue that causes. The concept of War Dogs is intriguing enough — and a fascinating indictment of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — to make the deal appealing. But eventually, you see the problems that you knew were going to arise, and may end up regretting not showing better judgment to begin with.