Everything about War Dogs – from the cast to the poster that riffs on Florida crime classic Scarface – seems to tell you everything you need to know about the film; that it’s a bromance about two young party guys in mid 2000s Florida who live the American Dream until it all catches up with them.
Instead of coke, Ephraim (Jonah Hill) and David (Miles Teller) sell weapons to the US armed forces. Thanks to a government loophole that lets small business bid on military contracts, the guys team up and make it big on a combination of opportunism, cluelessness, good luck and lowballing their far more established competition.
The trailer shows all the stock standard accouterments of sudden unexpected wealth (hot tubs, expensive booze, glitzy nightclubs, bikinis, sleek cars, etc) we’re used to from any number of films, from the aforementioned Scarface to The Entourage Movie and everything in between.
But when you get into War Dogs you realise it’s not what you think. It’s not the story about two homies who’ve grown up together dreaming of living like high rollers until they finally get their shot.
David is a door-to-door masseuse in Miami, on the skids and with his current scheme selling fine linens threatening to wipe him out. When Efraim – a guy he used to know who doesn’t have a very good reputation – shows up back in David’s middle class Jewish community circle, the two tentatively connect before Efraim lets David in on his small time arms dealing racket.
Together the boys exploit the federal arms contract loophole and establish themselves as players, money starting to roll in. Using their connections they can supply any gun their rapidly growing client base can dream of, in addition to parts like the 80% AR 15 Lower Receiver. Soon their hole in the wall office is a legitimate company with plush offices and staff and they’re making a killing.
But instead of the bromance you’re waiting for, David’s only ever about 80 percent comfortable with the way Efraim does business, and despite the homies-for-life stylings of both the film’s tone and the relationship between the guys, he’ll end up becoming David’s antagonist in ways he could never imagine.
And it might be the handling of that complicated relationship that trips War Dogs up. Teller and Hill have both been great in other projects (Whiplash, The Wolf of Wall Street), and it’s not that they aren’t any good in their roles here. There’s just a curious lack of chemistry between them, a stilted dead air that’s not in the script and which the simmering mistrust that bubbles up from time to time can’t explain.
The moments in the trailer – where they realise they’ve driven through what the local American soldiers call The Triangle of Death and fist bump each other for such a badge of honour – makes it seem like the fratboy comedy you expect, but the tone can’t make its mind up about whether it wants to stay there or not.
That might be because writer/director Todd Phillips (the Hangover trilogy – and yes, Bradley Cooper does make a cameo as a creepy weapons broker) had the true story of the David and Efraim to borrow from. The pair did actually end up jailed, the former serving seven months under house arrest for defrauding the US government in 2011. Maybe Phillips wanted a serious dramedy about the American Dream gone wrong, maybe he was wanted a fratboy comedy about the same premise, but it seems that in reaching for each he’s made a hodgepodge of both.
The references to Scarface in everything from the marketing to the narrative are both obvious and reverential, and what’s perhaps most interesting about War Dogs is how conventionally it once again applies the Protestant work ethic that permeates American life no matter how much the system idolises fame, riches and the good life.
At its heart, it’s another movie that shows lucky people getting filthy rich without ever having to really work for it, but like Scarface, The Wolf of Wall Street and every movie about the unfair/canny exploitation of the capitalist mechanism, we’re shown the sizzle reel of money before the movie makes sure to visit comeuppance on the protagonists so the audience all feels better about not being as lucky or smart as them.
It’s easy to defend War Dogs by saying it’s based on a true story (both boys were caught and sentenced in real life), but that doesn’t stop the essential structure and denouement feeling a bit too well-worn.
Together with the fact that the central relationship doesn’t gel (and thus distract you from the movie’s shortcomings), it makes a hash of a what could have been a good story about the failure of capitalism and how the commodity in question (coke, guns, people, etc) is beside the point.