In such dudes-gone-wild comedies as Pineapple Express and The Hangover, guys get incredibly wasted, do phenomenally stupid stuff, stumble into spectacular trouble, and yet somehow emerge relatively unscathed. Of course, scenarios like that don't play out in the real world.
Except that they do, according to War Dogs, an amusing if underachieving bad-boys farce based on the escapades of two twentysomething gunrunners. Efraim Diveroli and David Packouz are the actual names of actual people, high-school weed-buddies who went from attending an Orthodox synagogue in Miami Beach to brokering surplus Cold War-era ammo in Albania.
As depicted here, the ruthless Diveroli (Jonah Hill) and the impressionable Packouz (Miles Teller) are quite similar to the portrayals in Guy Lawson's 2011 Rolling Stone story, published soon after the two were busted for defrauding the U.S. government. That doesn't mean everything in the movie really happened. After all, War Dogs was directed and co-written by Todd Phillips, auteur of The Hangover series.
The film's most harrowing chapter is based on co-scripter Stephen Chin's 2004 trip to Baghdad to chronicle the exploits of two completely different young American wannabes. Chin blended Diveroli and Packouz's tale with episodes from an unproduced script about his misadventures in Iraq, a country the War Dogs mutts never visited.
Interlaced with the fact is much more fiction, notably the character of Packouz's Latin-accented lover (Ana de Armas). The charming actress' presence dilutes the movie's dangerously high testosterone level, while her character's objections to her beau's activities help him see the light.
War Dogs begins in The Big Short mode: flippant and cynical but eager to elucidate. It's narrated by Teller (whose alter ego has a cameo as a retirement-home folksinger), and crowded with facts about military purchasing. Price-tags pop up on weapons and equipment as Packouz introduces the world's second oldest profession: war profiteering.
A part-time masseur who's trying to get ahead by selling bed sheets in bulk, Packouz is delighted to encounter Diveroli, an old pal who just returned to Miami after being introduced to weapons reselling in L.A. Diveroli has chutzpah, a distinctive high-pitched giggle, and a plan to get rich. Oh, and a machine gun he whips out when a drug deal proves unsatisfactory.
What really changes the guys' lives, though, is a Pentagon procurement website designed to spread the wealth of the Iraq and Afghanistan occupations — "Ebay, but for war," they exult. Lowballing prices, repackaging prohibited materials, and sheer ignorance take the two guys far until they luck into a lucrative role as frontmen for a banned weapons dealer (Bradley Cooper). But maybe that's not so lucky, after all.
Despite dealing in cash, counterinsurgency, and adrenaline, the film fails to sustain the rush of its first hour. Phillips tries to compensate by packing the soundtrack with songs — mostly overexposed classic-rock tunes — but this is no Goodfellas. The arrival of yet another familiar opening riff begins to sap the movie's energy.
War Dogs would probably have been more compelling if the filmmakers hadn't strayed so far from the true story. But they manage to slip a fair amount of interesting commentary between the blunders, bong hits and wartime near-misses, and Cooper's character returns at the end with an interesting rationalization. It seems, to paraphrase, that even the baddest dudes are sometimes overpowered by the need to be badder. That's a moral the director of The Hangover Part III must surely understand.