War Dogs is one of those movies that’s undeniably ambitious and tells an interesting story that I didn’t know that much about, and yet I don’t think it’s particularly great. It’s these kind of movies that I have the most difficult time writing about. It’s 778 words of “It’s okay.” (A few years ago during the Toronto International Film Festival, I came up with a fake Twitter movie review that can be used for every movie: “It’s uneven at times, yet resonates.” If I hadn’t already blown that as a joke, I might have seriously tried to pawn that off as an introspective description of War Dogs.)
Based on Arms and the Dudes, Rolling Stone writer Guy Lawson’s account of arms dealing in the Middle East, War Dogs feels like director Todd Phillips’ attempt to do what Adam McKay did last fall with The Big Short: Here’s a filmmaker known for comedy directing an exposé about a systematic breakdown within the United States that led to mass chaos. (And as someone who likes Todd Phillips, I’m happy he’s taking on something like this as opposed to a fourth Hangover, or whatever.) But, now, pay no heed to that comparison between War Dogs and The Big Short. The latter is one of the best movies of 2015. As opposed to War Dogs, which, even as I’m typing, I still haven’t decided if I’d rate it “fresh” or “rotten.”
What I like most about War Dogs is its central plot point: In an effort to offset the promises Dick Cheney made to Halliburton, the U.S. government had a publicly accessible website that let literally anyone make bids on whatever arms the U.S. government needed. And the list was immense. The large contracts were usually won by huge firms, but there were also orders for, say, “three assault rifles.” These contracts, as Jonah Hill’s Efraim Diveroli calls them, are “the scraps.” And Efraim makes his living buying seized weapons from police raids and reselling them to the U.S. government for a healthy markup.
There’s an interesting graphic War Dogs uses to illustrate how lucrative arms dealing can be. The graphic breaks down every piece of equipment that a standard U.S. Army soldier wears in combat – which tallies up to $17,500. And that’s the way Efraim views each soldier: As a $17,500 price tag.
It’s refreshing to watch Miles Teller as the meek (well, in comparison) half of this duo. Teller plays David Packouz (who narrates the film), a massage therapist who sunk his life savings into high-end bed sheets he can’t sell. With few options, David joins Efraim (they were friends in junior high, never a good sign) in the profession of arms dealing – and their company grows and grows and grows.
Okay, I just thought of a comparison: If The Big Short is The Wolf of Wall Street, War Dogs is Boiler Room. There’s even a scene in War Dogs that feels straight out of Boiler Room in which Efraim kicks a new recruit out of a boardroom meeting after an offhand comment. It’s almost the same as a scene featuring Ben Affleck in Boiler Room – which is fine, because Affleck was doing Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross. (I like scenes like this because it reminds me that I don’t have a job in which I sit in a boardroom listening to people yelling.)
The best scene in War Dogs, which you’ve probably seen in the trailers, is when these two idiots try to deliver a shipment of guns that were seized by customs in Jordan. After brokering the release of their weapons, they decide to drive the weapons to Baghdad themselves. This scene plays well because the characters are so in over their head, but seem oblivious to how much danger they’re in. It’s the old “show these characters thinking they are cool to prove how horrible they are” trick, and it works. War Dogs owns the fact these two knuckleheads are “bros” and lets them bury themselves in their own “bro-ness.” And even after all this, the two up the stakes by getting into bed with a notorious arms dealer – played by Todd Phillips favorite, Bradley Cooper. It’s here things start going poorly for them.
Here’s the thing about Boiler Room: It’s not a particularly great movie, but it’s insanely rewatchable. If it’s on television, I’m probably going to watch it. It’s on the same list as Rounders, movies that seem explicitly made to watch 50 times when they pop up on cable. So, in that spirit, I’ve decided I like War Dogs: It will probably be a movie I watch many, many times on cable even if, in spite of its ambitions, it falls short of being important.
Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.