"Bush opened the floodgates in Iraq," Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) tells his junior-high best friend turned gun-running associate David Packouz (Miles Teller) over breakfast in a Miami, Florida, diner. "It's a fucking gold rush."
War Dogs, Todd Phillips' first film following The Hangover trilogy, is a true story about the Bush administration's brutalized American dream. As it became apparent that corporations supplied munitions to the United States military through sole source contracts, biddings opened to small businesses — allowing them to rake in hundreds of thousands of dollars running guns for Uncle Sam.
Enter Packouz and Diveroli, two aimless and ambitious 20-something stoners reminiscing on their glory days ("I miss not taking shit from anyone," Packouz says). Packouz is a part-time masseur who empties his savings on a business selling bedsheets to senior citizen homes, and Diveroli, a spray-tanned, sociopathic bro who discovers Pentagon contracts that let the little guy in on the military industrial complex's "crumbs." Diveroli and Packouz reconnect at a funeral, to Packouz's fortune, and partner under Diveroli's business moniker AEY — a name that stands for nothing, as Diveroli's life stands for nothing, as the long-drawn out Iraq war came to stand for nothing.
Packouz and his pregnant girlfriend Iz (Ana de Armas) are anti-war, but he can't really support her selling bedsheets. As Diveroli tells him, "The war is happening. This is pro money." Packouz lies to Iz. Money rolls in, but trouble mounts at AEY. The two-man business is forced to travel overseas to right a deal trafficking Beretta pistols gone awry. "God Bless Dick Cheney's America," Diveroli says during a chase scene through Fallujah, Iraq, as a squad of U.S. soldiers save them from machine-gun slinging rebels while Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Fortunate Son" plays overhead. A taste of success carries Diveroli and Packouz to their demise when they meet global gun dealer Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper) at an arms convention in Las Vegas. Girard helps AEY land their biggest deal yet, a $300 million contract selling 100 million rounds of AK-47 ammo to the Afghan military.
Teller and Hill lack the chemistry to create a believable duo. During the nearly two hours spent with Packouz and Diveroli, the surface is scratched, but their relationship never digs deeper than a shallow good-guy-bad-guy rapport. Independently, they shine. Teller's best when his moral compass points north, and Hill's performance as an over-the-top cerebral calculator with a Tony Montana admiration lands at the top of his resume. In Packouz and Diveroli's web of deception and more — themes that drive the film — Armas shines with a grounded portrayal of Packouz' girlfriend. While Packouz' humility corrodes, she remains unmoved. Cooper's charisma is fine-tuned, but don't get it wrong, this is Hill's show: a coked-out, conniving looney tune who makes deals with a blade ready for the back.
Those looking for the hijinks and one-liners that characterized The Hangover will be disappointed. With shots from clubby Miami Beach to desolate Albania, cinematographer Lawrence Sher (The Hangover trilogy) keeps Phillips' vision consistent. Phillips pulls pages from Martin Scorsese's playbook — all while peppering War Dogs with the gags that have branded his adolescent comedy since 2000's Road Trip. His latest effort asks to be taken seriously, though, and falls short. War Dogs, a worthy attempt, spends too much time redeeming Packouz and Diveroli. In Scorsese's hands, a more gripping film might have been made. It's an important step for Phillips, though, one that shows he should improve with time.