War, dawg

Two dudes, $300 million in weapons, and a satire of greedy America

Starring Jonah Hill and Miles Teller. Directed by Todd Phillips. Cinemark 14, Feather River Cinemas and Paradise Cinema 7. Rated R.
Rated 3.0

Director Todd Phillips, a man generally responsible for slob comedies like The Hangover and Old School, goes a more serious, satirical route with War Dogs. The results are mixed, but it’s ultimately entertaining.

Based on an article in Rolling Stone magazine that described real-life gun-runners who bilked the government and screwed each other over, the film plays out as a sort of The Wolf of Wall Street with weapons and Albania instead of stocks and the Financial District.

Contributing to that Wolf vibe would be Jonah Hill, who stars in both, playing Efraim Diveroli, a diabolical, narcissistic weapons dealer who puts profit before morality and friendship. Even though Hill throws in an annoying laugh that should’ve been discouraged, the core of his performance is still funny, and brutal when it needs to be.

Miles Teller plays his partner, David Packouz, a massage therapist who can’t keep his career in line and needs to straighten out fast, especially because he has a kid on the way with his wife, Iz (Ana de Armas, far less scary here than when she was torturing Keanu Reeves in Knock Knock).

The story focuses on one big deal that the two try to broker involving millions of rounds of ammunition in an Albanian warehouse. The U.S. government under Cheney and Bush had basically put arms trading deals out to anybody who dared to bid on them, and these guys dove in. They run into all kinds of trouble, some of it predictable. You’ll be able to guess what’s about to happens at times, but hey, much of this actually happened. It just shows how utterly stupid and simplistic the whole system was, and how these dopes walked into all kinds of traps—their predictability and willingness to chase a profit at all costs went hand in hand with their carelessness.

Phillips, like Adam McKay before him with The Big Short, makes a strong and convincing transition into dramatic satire. Yes, the film has its laughs, but this is by most standards a drama, one that the likes of Scorsese would try to tackle. Mind you, Phillips is no Scorsese, but he does make a good-looking movie containing realistic and strong performances. While he’s going down some familiar story paths here, he does so in a way that comes off stylistically strong.

One of the film’s best moments is a sequence in which Efraim and David must drive a relatively small shipment of guns through the Triangle of Death and into the heart of Iraq. It’s funny, thrilling and even a little scary. The parts before and after are riveting and engaging in other ways, but aren’t nearly as fast-paced or entertaining.

Teller bounces back impressively after last year’s awful Fantastic Four, giving a performance more in line with his awesome work in Whiplash.

War Dogs isn’t a great movie, but especially in a summer that’s stunk, it’s one of the season’s better ones.