The film opens with a kid in his early 20s, sitting in a beat-up, turquoise Ford Escort. Pardon me, Escort station wagon. Insert accent here – is not sexy. And he’s parked in an upscale, gated community in southern Florida. Further, he is lighting up a very ambitious looking joint. He’s got the stereo going and life is good, until the community’s security guard bangs on his window and forces the young man to leave the neighborhood. The kid tries to explain that he’s there for a massage therapy session, and he’s just trying to relax so he can help his client relax. But, he’s still forced out. Now, if only the U.S. government had paid the kind of attention this security guard had! I mean, who could have known this knucklehead stoner and his old schoolmate from the synagogue would hustle their way to an arms contract with the U.S. military worth $300M.
Even one of the hashtags promoting the film is #FindYourHustle, and these guys did just that – hustle. From the opening shot, War Dogs propels you into a world that you lived through, but were surely far, far away from. For example, did you know that each soldier you saw fighting in Iraq in the mid-2000s was equipped with over $17,000 worth of gear? Did you know that in 2006, small businesses could bid on astronomically sized Pentagon bids – by consistently checking a website? I didn’t happen to know that you can buy an SUV/tank hybrid at an annual trade show in Las Vegas. But, through David Packouz’s, educational voice-over throughout the film, we all learn a thing or two. Incidentally, Packouz is played by Miles Teller, who you’ll no doubt remember from Whiplash.
His partner in this business endeavor, Efraim Diveroli, is played by Jonah Hill. I liked Hill in Superbad, I thought he did a hell of a job in Moneyball – and he surely should be taken more seriously after War Dogs. It’s hard to perform well as both a comedic and dramatic actor. What Hill did with Diveroli’s laugh alone is memorable. You’ve had friends and associates like Efraim, and so have I: Hill’s performance reminds you why you don’t talk to them anymore. He is funny in some scenes, scary in others and quotable throughout.
I will tell you, the trailer to the film is good, but it’s a little curious how it touts the comedy. Is War Dogs funny? Oh, yeah. Would I classify it as a comedy? Ahhhhh, no. A dram-edy, maybe? It’s tough! You’ve seen in the trailers that these are some amoral characters. I’ve read some reviews making comparisons to Goodfellas, Scarface (which is kind of touted in the film throughout), Lord of War, for obvious reasons and other crime films.
But, the way the story is told entertains us from beginning to end. We’re laughing at these guys in one scene, and ready to indict them the next. That’s a tough line to walk along. Part of what helps this walk is the assorted characters they come across. There’s the Albanian warehouse owner who’s ready to deal
with the guys for quite a discount. There’s Packouz’s fiance Isabelle, played by newcomer Ana de Armas, who actually isn’t as dumb as she seems. And there’s Henry Girard, played with a discomforting iciness by Bradley Cooper. I never want to meet whoever Girard is supposed to be based upon. Even Dan Bilzerian makes an appearance!
The point is, I think that director Phillips and the production team made a conscious effort from the beginning. They said to themselves, “We can choose to laugh or cry at this true story…” And this team definitely decided to laugh at it. I can tell you from reading some of the conversation on Facebook and YouTube that this laughter is rubbing some moviegoers the wrong way. They are furious that the guy who made The Hangover is tackling this true, ugly, real-world story that had devastating effects on diplomacy, politics and morals.
And that’s what I want to end with. For those of you who saw my take on The Big Short, I am really enjoying films that tackle head-on the question of morality in today’s culture. I am lost in any effort to explain how Packouz and Diveroli didn’t at least once stop and say, “Should we do this?” If you read the article linked below, I think you’ll agree that Hill’s performance of Diveroli is pretty spot on. This guy grew up with an arms dealing uncle, and I can see how this might be all he ever knew. But Packouz never, ever said, “Yeah, this doesn’t seem right.” That concerns the hell out of me. That’s unsettling. And yet, the film did an amazing job of not only educating me on this whole mess, but also entertaining me along the way! That’s rare.
NOTE: here’s the Rolling Stone article that covers this true life story. I’ll tell you, I read it before seeing the film and it doesn’t ruin anything.. and it is truly amazing! It’s long, but I think you’ll enjoy it –
And finally, as a guy that’s spent a long time in movie marketing, this little ad as seen by one of my pals in Los Angeles made me grin: