War Dogs is true-life tale with a serious nasty streak
The Hangover director Todd Phillips teams up with stars Jonah Hill and Miles ‘Whiplash' Teller for War Dogs, a real life inspired tale of two Americans who made a mint doing dodgy arms deals with the US government during the second Iraq war. David Roy locks and loads...
WITH its constant freeze frame voice-overs and booming classic rock soundtrack, Todd Phillips's new comedy drama War Dogs owes an obvious stylistic debt to Martin Scorsese.
However, there are some serious issues with his film's morally murky based-on-real-life shenanigans which prevent it from becoming a real 'rooting for the bad guys' classic a la Goodfellas.
Jonah Hill and Miles Teller star as a pair of 20-something American get rich quicksters who discover a legal way to flog armaments to the US military.
The actual guys they play, Efraim Diveroli (Hill) and David Packouz (Teller), started out making a small fortune by sweeping up minor military contracts before eventually going for the brass ring (as they say in the States) – a $300m contract with the Pentagon to arm the entire Afghan army, which ends up being their undoing.
Had this film been made in the mid-1980s, War Dogs could have been a fun 'going into business' movie in which our canny blue collar wheeler-dealing protagonists – perhaps portrayed by the young Tom Hanks and John Candy – finally get a taste of the yuppie dream while raking in boatloads of cash in exchange for flogging bent guns and bullets to an unsuspecting Uncle Sam.
Of course, following a mid-flick musical montage in which we enjoy seeing the dynamic duo splashing out on mansions, matching Porsches and wild Champagne-fuelled parties in the VIP area of the nightclub they failed to gain entry to in the first act, the news of some horrendous foreign encounter the plucky pair have unwittingly helped facilitate would provoke a moment of epiphany.
Cue a frantic scramble to dismantle their entire operation and flee to Club Med before they're killed by their dodgy associates or arrested.
Pretty much all of the above actually does happen in War Dogs (and, we are led to believe, in real life), but the fun factor ebbs away far too quickly as it becomes apparent that the brashly hilarious Diveroli is, in reality, a sociopathic maniac.
You'll have cottoned on Diveroli's true colours long before Packouz, played by Teller as an affable dope in over his head, whose biggest flaw is his inability to come clean about what's going on to his adorable, anti-war girlfriend Izzy (Ana de Armas).
The cynic in me can't help but suspect that de Armas's embarrassingly one-dimensional character was invented solely for the purposes of this film, to 'raise the stakes' and facilitate a series of increasingly frustrating scenes where she catches Packouz out, gets mad and then pretty much immediately forgives him.
The set-up for War Dogs is that Diveroli and Packouz were childhood friends who got picked on in school: having reunited by chance after 20 years and with Packouz's life drifting towards nothing much, they join forces to turn the tables on a world they feel owes them something.
Initially, War Dogs gets good mileage out of this. We enjoy Diveroli scaring a drug dealer who's just ripped him off by letting rip with a machine gun produced from the boot of his car, watching Packouz bulls*** his way into securing a major military contract and seeing the duo embark on a seemingly suicidal mission across Iraq's 'triangle of death' (pretty funny and, predictably, completely made up) to rescue a stranded shipment of guns which is threatening to derail their biggest deal to date and indeed their entire operation.
Bradley Cooper is also decent value as an arms guru in goofy eye glasses whose numbed demeanour simply screams 'whatever you do, don't trust me'.
The script by the writing tag team of Phillips, Stephen Chin and Jason Smilovic (based on a Rolling Stone article and book by Guy Lawson) offers up a lame mix of family concerns and good old fashioned financial greed as the driving factors of Packouz's continued ignorance in the face of overwhelming evidence.
However, once we've realised that Diveroli is actually a ruthless monster beneath his superficially funny fast-talking front, it becomes more and more difficult to give his hapless partner a pass for not seeing it himself and thus allowing a number of not quite innocents in their orbit to be put at lethal risk due to his partner's increasingly Machiavellian machinations.
Also, the pair's blase attitude to the end product of their arms dealing endeavours is pretty disgusting.
Check out 2005's Nicolas Cage vehicle Lord of War for a more nuanced, sobering look at similarly immoral territory.
WAR DOGS (15, 114 mins) Comedy/Drama/Romance. Jonah Hill, Miles Teller, Ana de Armas, JB Blanc, Bradley Cooper. Director: Todd Phillips
RATING: TWO STARS