Movie Review: 'War Dogs' a Ribald True-Life Tale

Movie Review: 'War Dogs' a Ribald True-Life Tale

War Dogs, the latest film from The Hangover director Todd Phillips, tells one of those stories you would never believe if it weren’t true.

In the competitive “grey market” sale of weapons after the Cold War, arms dealers (especially those in Eastern Europe) began selling off stockpiles of guns, ammunition, and other items stashed for a war that never occurred.

They didn’t want (or need) the firepower, but the United States sure did. The only problem, due to laws and other minor inconveniences, was they couldn’t negotiate directly with the sellers. This opened the door for third-party middlemen who obtained the weaponry through questionable methods and resold to the military. Don’t ask, don’t tell.

Enter David Packouz and Efraim Diveroli, two Miami kids in their early-20s who started the company AEY Incorporated. After bidding on a number of low-level contracts for the US military, in 2007 they landed a $300 million dollar contract from the Pentagon that included a million rounds of AK-47 ammo. Four years later, they were in jail.

Their story is recounted in the excellent 2011 Rolling Stone article (now) titled The Stoner Arms Dealers: How Two American Kids Became Big-Time Weapons Traders by Guy Lawson, and now this feature-length movie, which is a kind of minor-league Scorsese (by no means a bad thing) overview of everything that went wrong.

Miles Teller stars as Packouz, a struggling stoner and soon-to-be dad who’s been working as a masseuse for the Miami elite. Jonah Hill is Diveroli, who rolls back into town for a funeral and tells his old pal about the amazing, and highly profitable, business of dealing arms to the US government.

While the focus is on these two characters – who both narrate the movie in turns, shades of Scorsese’s Casino – the overall reach of their story is far grander, and the filmmakers use it to showcase everything that was (is) wrong with a system that allows something like this to happen.

Early scenes detail a frightening journey from Jordan to Iraq the duo takes to secure a shipment and avoid a dreaded negative rating, but the bulk of the big $300 million deal takes place in Albania, where they must arrange the large-scale repacking of illegal Chinese ammunition into nondescript plastic bags.

The pair has been turned on to the Albanian connection through notorious arms dealer Henry Girard, played by a wonderfully sleazy Bradley Cooper. Cooper doesn’t have enough screen time to really explore the character, but he lends the film a note-perfect final scene.

Director Phillips has previously (and exclusively) made broad comedies like the Hangover films and Due Date, but War Dogs is a different beast: it’s an almost frightening dramatic piece that mines dark humor from the absurd nature of the true story it tells. While there are laughs here – Hill is often a riot – comedy is not the movie’s primary focus.

One qualm: Hill’s Diveroli, despite being one of the leads of the film, isn’t given the same depth of character the movie affords to Teller’s Packouz. Efraim’s actions during the film’s climax feel inconsistent and irrational, if only because we don’t know enough about him.

War Dogs covers some of the same ground as the Nicolas Cage gun runner movie Lord of War, but like The Big Short it takes its time not just to deliver the intricate facts of this true story, but to relate them to the audience in a clear and understandable way.

The notion that a couple of Miami Beach stoners became $300 million arms dealers for the Pentagon is absurd. But it’s also downright scary. 

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