How does a 22-year-old Miami Beach massage therapist become an international arms dealer? The same way a working-class kid from Queens clawed his way to the Wolf of Wall Street and an errand boy for Brooklyn mobsters grew up to be a Goodfella: Hunger, necessity, and a crazy confluence of luck and circumstance.
Todd Phillips’ slick, kinetic War Dogs owes a lot—often too much—to those two latter films, and like them, it’s based on a true story: A pair of bong-huffing Florida stoners who wrangled over $300 million in military weapons contracts from the U.S. Department of Defense before their high times, too, ended in inevitable, spectacular shambles.The film’s narrator and presumptive hero is David (Miles Teller), a lost puppy scraping by on freelance massage jobs and failing badly at his occasional extracurricular money schemes. (An attempt to sell wholesale premium bedsheets to retirement homes tanks, he realizes, because “nobody cares about old people.”) It’s 2005, the height of the War on Terror, and David objects to all of that bad Big Government stuff on principle, but when his best friend from junior high, Efraim (Jonah Hill), comes back into town and offers to bring him in on his estranged uncle’s booming guns & ammo business, he doesn’t put up much of a fight.
Dave tells himself it’s all to support his newly pregnant girlfriend (Ana de Armas), though the truth is pretty obvious: What Efraim, with his slicked Gordon Gekko hair, terra cotta spray tan, and extraordinary laugh—it lands somewhere between an air horn and an accordion wheeze—is really offering is excitement. As their stakes in the game escalate, more exotics foils (including an amusingly deadpan Bradley Cooper, as a cryptic fellow dealer) and locales (Fallujah, Albania) come into play, though the event horizon never recedes: We know the hole these bros are digging. That’s partly because of how director Phillips (the Hangover trilogy) structures his story, with flashforwards and interstitials, and also because we’ve seen this arc so many times before. But it’s still slickly, noisily entertaining in a cue-the-next-montage-and-bass-whomp way. (If you’re looking for a more serious examination of the issues of ethics and personal responsibility this all raises, don’t; the script picks up and then drops them disinterestedly, like a toddler with a dry Cheerio.)
A lot of what makes War Dogs work comes down to Hill, who is operating at maximum density here physically (he reportedly gained weight specifically for the part) but whose unhinged charisma also anchors the movie. His Efraim is an unrepentant liar, a shameless opportunist, and possibly a sociopath; he’s also by far the most interesting thing happening onscreen. As he’s proved in previous roles—including Oscar-nominated turns in Moneyball and, yes, Wolf of Wall Street—there are few mainstream actors better at inhabiting The Other Guy: the charlatans, kooks, and weirdos who rarely get to play the hero. And in a conflict as murky and morally ambiguous as this one, he’s exactly the right guy for the job. B–