George W. Bush and Dick Cheney were such scary clowns, it's curious that more comedies haven't been made about their globally destabilizing antics. It's equally baffling that so few of the handful of films that have been made worked, even with high-grade talent at their centers. Years from now, is anyone likely to look back at last year's Rock the Kasbah or this spring's Whiskey Tango Foxtrot as their respective stars' professional zeniths? In April, A Hologram for the King proved the biggest bunker bomb of Tom Hanks' career.
So it's no small victory for War Dogs that the film doesn't merely work, but works so terrifically you frequently feel as though you're watching a Martin Scorsese movie. That's impressive for a number of reasons. First, the aforementioned Middle East comedy curse. Second, War Dogs was directed by Todd Phillips of The Hangover series fame. Here, the creator of Due Date (2010), Old School (2003) and Road Trip (2000) — basically the most bro-centric body of work in the history of cinema — marks his graduation to filmmaking on a more grown-up yet no less wildly entertaining level. And, finally, the film tells the true story of twentysomething scumbags and manages to make you care.
Based on a 2011 Rolling Stone article and scripted by Phillips, Stephen Chin and Jason Smilovic, War Dogs chronicles the misadventures of David Packouz (Miles Teller) and Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill). The former is a bland Miami Beach loser whose dream is to sell high-thread-count bed sheets to retirement homes. It's not going well. In 2005, he reunites at a funeral with Diveroli, his best bud from junior high. The latter is the polar opposite of his old pal: ballsy, never far from his bong and totally indifferent to boundaries.
Diveroli invites Packouz to join a highly lucrative enterprise he's built, a company called AEY (which, amusingly, stands for absolutely nothing) that functions as a middleman between combat hardware manufacturers and the U.S. military. It's all perfectly legal. Until it isn't.
Faced with charges of government cronyism during the Iraq War, Bush opened up bidding for military contracts to anyone with a laptop and dial-up connection. So our two heroes spend their days in Diveroli's office scrolling down the official site listing war contracts on offer and snorting coke. On the wall behind them hangs a massive painting of Tony Montana brandishing a machine gun and an equally lethal grimace. It's a nice touch, at once a glimpse into Efraim's percolating pathology and an ominous bit of foreshadowing.
As business gets bigger — and trickier — Phillips choreographs the action masterfully. Funny and frightening in equal measure, for example, is a sequence in which the two men drive a truckload of Berettas to Baghdad under cover of night through a desert area called the Triangle of Death. This part of the film is pure fiction, but that doesn't make it one iota less spellbinding.
The story is told from the point of view of Packouz, but it's Diveroli's movie all the way. Hill is at the top of his game, creating a can't-look-away character bordering on sociopathic. It's a performance unlike any the Oscar winner has given before, funny as hell one minute and convincingly menacing the next.
War Dogs never preaches, but it reminds us of the rampant absurdity that became the new normal during the Bush-Cheney years, especially within the military-industrial complex. At the same time, it offers a case study of unbridled greed and its deleterious effect on the human soul. Think The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) with hand grenades instead of hookers. Just don't think twice about seeing it.