“War Dogs,” starring Miles Teller and Jonah Hill as bushy-tailed geek scoundrels who become Internet arms salesmen, is that rare thing: a based-in-reality movie that gives you a buzz. The film just about tingles with the antic pleasure of seeing people get away with things they shouldn’t. It’s obvious that the director, Todd Phillips, was hugely influenced by the money-rush fever and propulsive shot language of Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street,” and by the orchestrated delirium of David O. Russell’s “American Hustle” — giddy, spinning life-as-a-con-job psychodramas that show you how fraud really works, and that celebrate it, too. (They also condemn it, but only after giving the audience a rough and rowdy good time.)
Phillips borrows the bravura of Scorsese and Russell (who borrowed plenty of Scorsese’s to begin with), but he also makes it his own, merging it with his more casually mirthful, next-generation voice. “The Wolf of Wall Street” was rooted in the sleek white-collar façade of life on The Street, and “American Hustle” mined the tacky unreality of ’70s sleaze. “War Dogs” has a scruffier, more lightly disreputable vibe. It’s based on a 2011 Rolling Stone article (by Guy Lawson) called “Arms and the Dudes,” and it’s about hip hucksters who make a mountain of cash selling weapons to the U.S. military during the Iraq War. The joke, at least for a while, is that it’s all perfectly legal, because the business of national security has become…a business. The con is that these two are glorified hacker opportunists who only pretend to run a respectable company. But then, to keep it going, they have to start cutting corners, and once they start they can’t stop, since the money is just too good…
In theory, at least, everyone needs to grow up, but that has never been the case in Hollywood, where a filmmaker can get stuck forever in juvenile overdrive. Arrested development rules because it pays (at least, in the movies), and Todd Phillips, for all his wit and flash and talent, has made it the basis of his brand. Ever since his first comedy, the consciously junky neo-’80s youth bash “Road Trip” (2000), he has never looked back, churning out unabashed throwaways that were sometimes funny (“Old School”) and sometimes not (“Starsky & Hutch”), and becoming a major-league Gen-X voice with the “Hangover” trilogy.
“War Dogs” marks a key turning point for Phillips. After all these years of yocks, it’s his first true grown-up movie, and it’s a nimble, gripping, and terrific one, with plenty of laughs, only now they’re rooted in the reality of fear, and in behavior that’s authentically scurrilous. Even during his reign as king jester of the animal house, it was always clear that Phillips was a genuine filmmaker, but maybe it took the withering response to not one but two “Hangover” sequels for him to look in the mirror and say: Time to move on. Moviegoers should be glad he did. For Phillips, “War Dogs” marks the launch of what could turn out be an inspiring second-stage career. The box office should prove solid (if not “Hangover” huge), because he remains, at every moment, a rousing entertainer.
The movie puts the audience right on the side of duplicity and sleaze — and that, ironically, is the key to its moral cunning. (It teaches a lesson from the inside out.) In this case, we’re led through a looking glass of financial distress — even though the film is set a decade ago, during the administration of George W. Bush. David Packouz (Teller), in his early twenties, is a Miami Beach college dropout who works as a freelance massage therapist, a job the movie mocks, but only because it’s so wrong for him. (His big dream? To make a killing selling quality bedsheets to retirement homes.) It’s David’s good fortune to attend a funeral, where he runs into Efraim Diveroli (Hill), his middle-school yeshiva buddy. Efraim, with huge jowls and a dead-eyed gleam, looks like a bullfrog — but, in fact, he’s his own breed of reptile. He’ll say anything to anyone, but he always makes it sound as if he’s their hip-hop bro, and he has stumbled onto a money-making scheme that’s based on a piece of “liberal” government policy.
In the mid-2000s, as it came out that the Bush administration was awarding no-bid defense contracts to conglomerates like Halliburton and Lockheed Martin, pressure mounted to make the Iraq War look a little less like a military-industrial boondoggle. So a bill was passed that made it possible for anyone to bid on military contracts. Efraim, a scrounger, has turned this into a business, acting as the middle man to sell combat hardware to the military — not major weapons systems, but what he refers to as “crumbs.” He calls his company AEY (which stands for nothing whatsoever), and he’s got a poster on his office wall of Al Pacino in “Scarface” in full machine-gun-spraying grimace. What that poster tells you is that for Efraim, this isn’t just about the money. It’s about the money, the power, the lure of vicarious aggression. It’s about hawking weapons as a signifier of cajones.
He enlists David to become his partner, and David has to overcome one ethical scruple that, at first, seems relatively minor: He and his fiancé, Iz (Ana de Armas), are against the war. But the moral conundrum at the heart of “War Dogs” starts small and then grows, like a tumor. It’s not just about the politics of war — it’s about the interpersonal worm of lying. After a while, Efraim and David stumble onto their first lucrative contract, a deal to sell Beretta handguns to an officer in Baghdad. But the guns are sitting in Jordan, a country that has passed a law forbidding arms shipments to Iraq. There’s only one way to make the deal work: They’ll have to travel to Jordan and smuggle the guns across the border themselves. Suddenly, these two armchair weapons warriors have to put their badasses on the line.
Phillips, who kicks the movie along with freeze frames, chewy rock & roll nuggets like Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger,” and chapter headings carved out of the dialogue (“When does telling the truth ever help anybody?”), stages a bravura sequence in which David and Efraim show up in Jordan to execute their mission. Efraim says he doesn’t want to be the “ugly American,” but, in fact, he’s the most hilariously ugly of Americans (Efraim to child translator: “Tell him I’ll give him a hundred bucks for those shades. Tell him in gibberish”), and when the two hire a smuggler to drive a ramshackle truck 500 miles across the desert, braving checkpoints and gunfire, it’s an existential comedy of terror. The key to it all is that the two actors play it straight. David, tense and calculating, but in way over his head, is our representative, and Miles Teller has the gift of making decency magnetic. As for Hill, amazingly, he forms a direct connection to the audience even though he’s playing an irredeemable, mostly charm-free jerk who may, in fact, be a reckless sociopath. We should, objectively, be repelled by him, but in “War Dogs,” Hill, more than ever, is a true star, with a hellbent charisma that comes from deep within.
There’s a scene set in Vegas (of course!), and it’s there, at a combat expo, that our heroes meet a legendary underground arms dealer played by Bradley Cooper, whose mystique feels as formidable as it does (in a Todd Phillips movie) inevitable. He helps to set in motion their hugest deal, a contract to sell 100 million rounds of AK-47 ammo — which turn out to be ancient Chinese bullets stowed in decaying warehouses in Albania. By this point, the sheer insanity of the logistics are driving the action (can they repackage all that ammo to camouflage its pedigree?), and that starts to consume what’s left of David’s moral center. But Phillips, to his credit, doesn’t hit us over the head. He threads the movie’s message through every encounter, until we feel the queasiness of how lying can eat away at us. “War Dogs” lets the audience taste the lure of big money, and then says: That’s a hangover you have to wake up from.