Review: War Dogs (2016)


War Dogs is Scorsese-lite, playing like The Wolf of Wall Street mixed with Lord of War and set during the Iraq War. It takes a mostly-comedic approach to a dark subject matter—the global weapons trade—shedding some much-needed light on its unethical nature in the process of having fun with the debauchery inherent to the world it explores. Of course, like Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street, War Dogs is entertainment first and moral commentary second. There’s a lesson to be learned here, but it’s not as sentimental as an after school special. It primarily goes about showing that being bad can be fun.

The director, Todd Phillips, who made his name with the nihilistic comedy of The Hangover Trilogy, utilizes first-person narration and flashy camerawork to chart the rise and fall of David Packouz (Miles Teller) and Efraim Diveroli (an electric Jonah Hill), who became the youngest arms suppliers to the American military during the Iraq War. 

Phillips is a much better director than he’s given credit for being. He has an eye for striking imagery, a love of visual irony, and, most importantly, the ruthless sense of an efficient editor. His films lack excess and saggy editing, unlike 90 percent of modern American comedies. War Dogs is likely his best visual work to date as the shifting colour palettes and variety of locales from Miami Beach to Iraq to Albania lets him play with the camera and offer an irreverent approach to the material, using everything from sweeping helicopter shots to steadicam tracking shots to narrow focus and slow motion to make us feel the rush of David’s ascent from massage therapist to global arms dealer.

Like Henry Hill in Goodfellas, David Packouz is our surrogate and entry-point to the world of arms dealing. He provides the narration and begins the film on the outside looking in. When he joins the arms business run by his high school buddy, Efraim, we learn about this shady industry as he does. Soon enough, David and Efraim are raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars a month, breaking whatever laws they need to in order to supply the Army with its guns. These illegal actions provide the film with its most entertaining moments. 

In one section midway through the film, they circumvent an Italian embargo by shipping Beretta pistols to Jordan instead of Iraq and hiring a smuggler to drive them and the pistols over the border to Baghdad. This gambit nearly proves fatal as David and Efraim’s ignorance of Arabic script and blind trust in the smuggler goes awry when they stop for gas deep in an Iraqi warzone, not knowing that they’d inadvertently parked in Fallujah. Later in the film, they buy Chinese AK-47 ammunition to supply the Afghan military, repackaging the bullets to avoid American laws forbidding arms trade with China. We watch as they hatch the scheme to repack the bullets and hire a team of Albanian crooks to work night and day transfering the Chinese bullets into plastic bags. The combination of snappy narration overtop a montage showcasing illegal ingenuity is straight out of the Goodfellas playbook.

Like Scorsese’s crime films, War Dogs thrives off the pleasure of watching men have fun getting away with crimes before it pulls the carpet out from under them, therefore also granting us the satisfaction of seeing bad men get their due. It’s a delicate balance to pull off both approaches in one film, but like Scorsese, Phillips understands enough about movie viewers and human behaviour to showcase immoral behaviour and comprehend its pleasures without excusing it. He shows us the big guns, huge wads of cash, and endless flow of drugs afforded by David and Efraim’s breaking the law, but he also doesn’t shy away from the instability of the characters and their moral rot, also forcing us to watch David lie through his teeth to his sympathetic girlfriend (Ana de Armas in a thankless role) even after pretending to apologize to her, or Efraim treat the people who work for him as cattle, firing a man because he asks a harmless question.

Of course, once David and Efraim get involved with an underworld arms dealer played by Bradley Cooper (doing his best Bono), the film takes a more conventional approach, with David getting cold feet and eventually doing the right thing...when he has no other alternative, that is. War Dogs gets to play the redemption angle at the end of its narrative arc, but Phillips is too blackhearted to allow his protagonist to get away unblemished. A final scene involving Bradley Cooper’s arms dealer erases this redemption and leaves us with the proper resolution for this kind of story, letting us know that once a person has a taste of the high life, they’ll take any opportunity to get it back.

The ending of Teller and Cooper in a glass-walled, luxury hotel room may not have the iconic punch of Henry Hill complaining about ketchup on his egg noodles or Jordan Belfort asking an audience member to sell him a pen during a wealth expo, but it’s in the same ballpark. It proves that, like Scorsese, Phillips has the guts to reveal his characters for the spineless mercenaries they are, instead of letting us pretend that you can do bad things and still be a good person at heart.

7 out of 10

War Dogs (2016, USA)

Directed by Todd Phillips; written by Stephen Chin, Todd Phillips, and Jason Smilovic, based on Arms and the Dudes by Guy Lawson; starring Jonah Hill, Miles Teller, Ana de Armas, Bradley Cooper, Kevin Pollak.