A true crime story told like a business school case study, War Dogs is about a reckless pursuit of profit leading straight into fraud and disaster. It’s loosely based on the real story of how two twenty-something college dropouts blustered and hustled their way to millions upon millions of dollars in defense contracts during the first years of the Iraq War. In over their heads, they ultimately cut too many corners and bring about their own downfalls, but not before getting filthy rich providing guns and ammo to fuel the military-industrial complex. Recent history, it’s an object lesson in the downside of an irrepressible entrepreneurial spirit. Director Todd Phillips, trying his hand at drama after making the likes of Old School and The Hangover, pitches the movie at the same coarse bro-centric smarm that powers his comedies. In some ways that’s smart, making the characters’ proud ignorance and irresponsible greed a dead ringer for the dominant political climate of Bush-era foreign policy. But the whole project is too clumsy to really activate what’s most interesting about the story. The good version of this movie is hiding just underneath the bad one, which doesn’t trust the audience to follow along.
It begins when the opportunistic Efraim (Jonah Hill) discovers that the United States has an open bidding process for defense contractors. Using his knowledge of arms dealing he picked up from his shady uncle, he lowballs on small bids the big companies mostly ignore, and then fulfills them through a patchwork of grey-area backchannels and whole sale purchases. Work pours in, so he asks David (Miles Teller), an old schoolmate unhappily working a massage therapist job, to join the scrappy upstart company. As the only employees, they manage to turn a pretty penny. The war is taking off and the government is willing to look the other way if it means saving money on the arms race. Phillips shoots these early scenes like a cross between Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street – with its slick excess and loose morals – and Bay’s Pain & Gain – with dumb guys and big dreams sleazing around Miami Beach cooking up their not-quite-legal plots. That’s compelling enough, with intrigue, double-crosses, and the intoxication of sudden wealth before the hollow pit in the stomach as it threatens to crash down.
There’s something compelling about watching these characters find room in the margins of the defense budget to siphon off some business for themselves, fast-talking generals, cooking the books for audits, and even smuggling weapons into Iraq in a rickety truck with an amusingly blasé local (Shaun Toub). Hill and Teller work well together as a study in contrasts, one moving his bulk like a presumptuous smooth fat cat, the other lean and hungry for any scrap. Hill has a braying laugh and intimidating presence, while Teller is meeker, ready to go along with whatever is happening as long as it means money to support his family. His wife (Ana de Armas) exists in the story only to be extra incentive to make ends meet, and to serve as a moral conscience. She’s not a character, but a symbol. Then again, so are the guys, who enter the picture and leave the picture pretty much the same. The plot progresses, but the movie never deepens their relationships or surprises us with new shadings or complications.
So it’s not a particularly deep or insightful movie, ultimately a fairly shallow treatment of a story that could’ve been a better unraveling of process. Instead Phillips, with co-writers Stephen Chin and Jason Smilovic, steers into his comic instincts, letting Hill and Teller riff and spar and joke. Throughout he adds layers of explanatory text – obvious symbolism, thuddingly on-the-nose jukebox soundtrack spelling out subtext, endless narration, freeze frames, title cards, and affected chapter headings named for lines of dialogue we’ll hear later in the section. It never stops explaining itself, underlining every motivation and walking the audience through every thought process step-by-step. There’s a great story here, and a good cast up to the task of selling the emotional and business throughlines. (Best is a brief appearance by Bradley Cooper, who effortlessly uses every iota of his star power bringing an infamous arms dealer’s notoriety to life.) But the movie can’t step out of its own way and let what’s so inherently interesting play out unimpeded. Phillips provides a terrific surface slickness, but, like Adam McKay’s The Big Short, the result is a movie that is too afraid the audience will miss the point to take full advantage of the material’s potential.