In 1990, Goodfellas showed us the details of the mysterious life of gangsters. Now, in 2016, War Dogs seeks to show us how a couple of twentysomethings found their way to riches through international arms dealing in Dick Cheney’s America. Director (and co-writer) Todd Phillips clearly took some cues from Scorsese’s classic, but this based-on-a-true-story tale is somehow even more unbelievable to watch unfold than Henry Hill’s life and times. Perhaps because David Packouz (Miles Teller) and Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) aren’t part of a centuries-old organized crime structure. Rather, they are just two guys with flip phones and the patience to sift through thousands of pages of listings for government contracts.
But we meet David, our narrator and protagonist long before that. He’s 22, a masseuse and stuck for his life savings with an ill-advised get rich quick ploy that involves selling sheets to retirement homes. He reconnects with Efraim —the middle school best pal he hasn’t seen since the latter’s abrupt departure from their high school some years earlier — at a funeral, and is stunned to see his old pal’s success. But soon, Efraim is teaching David the ropes and the pair are making unimaginable money using a kind of fake it ’til you make it approach to gun-running.
It’s the kind of fascinating stranger-than-fiction story that’s pretty incredible to watch unfold, even as you wonder how it could possibly have gone this way. And the team seems to understand that. David’s voiceover occasionally clues us in to out hero’s own astonishment at their success. Teller and Hill seem to understand this too. Teller is all astonishment and incredulity while Hill slips into the kind of broad, manic character that has fast become his trademark. The film is at its best when it allows these two to bounce off each other and lingers in the bizarre details of the their story.
If War Dogs stumbles, it does so very occasionally, and only in those moments when it feels like a story carved to fit a certain mold of narrated crime drama that makes you root for the bad guys. It’s not that it doesn’t lend itself to this structure, but that it doesn’t do anything particularly new or innovative within it. The beats are familiar to us, even when the story is not. Still, War Dogs marks what we can hope is the beginning of the transition into a fall film season marked by solid dramas after a summer with a few bright spots amidst a weary parade of blockbusters.
All images courtesy: Warner Bros Pictures
Director: Todd Phillips
Runtime: 1 hr 54 minutes
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