Maybe the only thing you need to hear about War Dogs, Todd Phillips’s aggressive new comedy about two Miami stoners who became gun-runners and Iraq War profiteers, is the supreme lameness of its intertitles. For every act break, the film cuts to black and flashes a line of text on screen, something provocative like “If I wanted you dead, you’d be dead already,” or, “That sounds illegal.” Then, a few minutes later, someone will say that very line, and you can almost smell the self-satisfaction wafting from the screen.
The movie is based on the true story of Efraim Diveroli and David Packouz, two small-time arms dealers who conned their way into a $298 million contract from the Pentagon and were eventually convicted of fraud. In the endless Middle East quagmire that followed the Iraq War, Diveroli and Packouz were venal opportunists, cutting corners to supply arms to the U.S. military and its allies, and eventually getting busted for trying to repackage substandard Chinese bullets for use by Afghan soldiers. Phillips’s film has a chance to satirize a heartlessly corrupt era in American military policy, one that led to the rise of morons like Diveroli and Packouz—to be The Big Short with bullets, if you will. But there’s one big problem: It seems to think its despicable protagonists are worth rooting for.
Well, that’s one of the problems, at least. Packouz, as played by Miles Teller, is a harmless mope, a hardworking grunt who just wants to provide for his pregnant girlfriend Iz (Ana de Armas). Stuck in a dead-end job as a masseuse, he reunites with his high-school buddy Diveroli (Jonah Hill), a glass-eyed lunatic who almost immediately pulls a submachine gun from the trunk of his car and fires it into the air, emitting a demented laugh that sounds like air escaping a balloon. Most people would steer clear of this sort of person, especially one whose fashion sense seems heavily indebted to Al Pacino in Scarface, but with more Hebrew medallions. But Packouz throws his whole lot in with Diveroli, joining his fledgling gun-running business and quickly making a fortune trawling for arms on the internet and shipping them to American soldiers.
Hill has a blast playing Diveroli, bringing all the best tricks he learned working with Martin Scorsese on The Wolf of Wall Street to play an even bigger, more unpredictable sleazebag. He at least imparts a sense of danger: Diveroli is certainly a fool, skirting trade embargoes one minute and offering random women money to sleep with him the next, but you keep waiting for him to snap—for his strangled cackle to turn into a snarl. On the other hand, Teller, who was so promising as a normal young man warped by his mentor in Whiplash, is sleepwalking here, never very troubled by the ethical quicksand he and his partner have wandered into. Teller is so often good at playing the emotional turmoil boiling right under the surface of his characters, but if Packouz is supposed to be an audience surrogate, he’s a bad one, repeatedly lying to his poor, one-dimensional girlfriend and falling for Diveroli’s obvious lies.
Phillips, who has directed several outrageous comedies (Road Trip, Old School, Due Date, and The Hangover series), seems enamored by the “true story” he’s telling, even though much of the film is a fabrication (a jaunt through Iraq’s “Triangle of Death” is entirely invented). He’s also clearly delighted by the fact that his anti-heroes are Jewish, finally overcoming some oft-mentioned, obvious stereotypes about being nerds in high school by obnoxiously firing guns and dressing like Miami gangsters. Philips is especially happy to let Packouz off the hook as a well-meaning patsy who got screwed over by the mercurial Diveroli. That’d be an easier storyline to swallow if Diveroli weren’t such an obvious huckster from the start; it’s galling that Phillips thinks his viewers can stomach almost two hours of Packouz running guns and then forgive him by the end.
War Dogs was always going to be an unapologetically bro-y testosterone fest on some level, but it could’ve offered incisive commentary, too. Just a decade ago, the war in Iraq saw the government practically handing its keys over to people like Packouz and Diveroli just to stay ahead of enemy combatants. When Bradley Cooper shows up midway through the film as an older, even more ethically compromised arms dealer who goes into business with the boys, there’s a brief feeling that War Dogs is finally going to acknowledge the dark heart of its unbelievable true story. But anytime Phillips brushes up against a horrifying reality, he pulls back, focusing on the lead characters rather than the nastier (and more interesting) circumstances that made them such successes. At best, War Dogs is a missed creative opportunity; at its worst, it’s a quasi-celebration of two vile schemers, one that ignores the brutality of the world they capitalized on.