The improbable exploits of David Packouz and Efraim Diveroli, two twentysomething stoners from Miami Beach who landed a $300 million contract to supply the Department of Defense with ammunition for the war in Afghanistan, were recounted in a 2011 Rolling Stone article by Guy Lawson. Later, he expanded his reportage into a nonfiction book, “Arms and the Dudes.”
In “War Dogs,” director Todd Phillips (“Old School,” “The Hangover”) takes a crack at the tale, preserving its can-you-believe-this? quality while amping up the humor. The result is an often hilarious cautionary tale about entrepreneurship and greed that recounts the actual events while rewriting most of the details. Packouz, who shaves his head, is played by Miles Teller, sporting healthy movie-star hair. Diveroli, who has a slim, athletic build, is played by Jonah Hill, who gained a considerable amount of weight for the part. They look nothing like their real-life counterparts — one of the many ways in which the film distances itself from reality in order to recount its own, hopped-up version of the story.
Aside from compressing details and characters for the sake of clarity, “War Dogs” also relishes in the inherent absurdity of two nobodies playing the U.S. government. The Bush administration’s decision to open the bidding on military contracts during the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts to anyone with an internet connection was a way to staunch growing criticism of war profiteering by corporations such as Halliburton. The screenplay, which Phillips wrote with Stephen Chin and Jason Smilovic, lays all this out cleanly and swiftly, using Packouz as the audience surrogate while he and Diveroli start a company called AEY Inc. The acronym doesn’t mean anything, just like “IBM doesn’t stand for anything,” Diveroli claims. Pity the fool who dares to correct him.
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“War Dogs” incorporates its Miami backdrop of flashy cars, glitzy nightclubs, sunny beaches, “Scarface” movie posters and giant penthouses into the psyches of its two protagonists, showing us the ideal of success the duo was pursuing. The story hops from Las Vegas, where they first meet a powerful arms dealer (Bradley Cooper) who is on the terrorist watch-list, to Baghdad, where they personally escort a truckload of guns through the desert, dodging bullets along the way. The situation eventually becomes dire in Albania, where an old stash of Chinese AK-47 ammo promises to make the two friends millionaires. But their karma catches up with them.
Phillips has a deep appreciation of the appeal of bad behavior — he’s built a career out of depicting male arrested development — but in “War Dogs” antics have consequences graver than a mere hangover. Teller plays Packouz as a guy struggling to provide for his girlfriend who trusts an old friend a little too easily, then succumbs to the lure of fast, easy money: He’s only human. Hill, who can channel moral rot as deftly as he does broad comedy, turns Diveroli into the sort of person who is only nice and helpful as long as he’s benefiting from the situation (the actor also gives him a psychopathic, dangerous edge; he seems a little too happy when he’s firing off semiautomatic rifles).
In another movie, the implosion of their friendship would have been played for tragedy. But in “War Dogs” it comes off as a liberation for Packouz, who was being dragged down a dangerous road by someone who only pretended to care about him. Phillips keeps the movie funny and riotous without glamorizing his characters’ misdeeds. The film is a comedy, but it’s never trivial, and the filmmakers don’t let the government’s participation in what transpired slip by unnoticed. These two hustlers may have been slick players, but “War Dogs” argues that their target was more than willing.
Cast: Miles Teller, Jonah Hill, Ana de Armas, Kevin Pollak, Shaun Toub, Steve Lantz, Bradley Cooper.
Director: Todd Phillips.
Screenwriters: Todd Phillips, Stephen Chin, Jason Smilovic.
A Warner Bros. release. Running time: 118 minutes. Vulgar language, drug use, adult themes. Playing at area theaters.