"War Dogs" is a curious breed. The movie is self-consciously anti-war, full of enough cautionaries about greed and profiteering from international conflict to stand as a moral tale.
Repeatedly the principals tell us how much they dislike war. Over and again images of Afghan and Iraq War initiators President George Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney are treated derisively. But for every lesson painstakingly etched, Director Todd Phillips can't resist tweaking conventional morality with attempts to draw humor out of the predicaments of his movie's larger than life characters and sympathy to their amoral plight.
Phillips has had great success with reductio ad absurdum. His more successful films like "Old School", "Hangover I" and "Hangover II" push conventional limits of embarrassing interactions, painful physical comedy and implausible juxtapositions. The centrifugal force of wild action humor is held together by the contrivances of male bonding.
"War Dogs" pushes this formula less successfully. Down on his luck David Packouz (Miles Teller) needs to support his girlfriend Iz (Ana de Armas) and their soon to be born child. David hooks up with his childhood friend Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) to bid on small government contracts to supply arms to the U.S. military. From the beginning the partnership is problematic: David is desperate; Efraim is unscrupulous. Their venture is held together based neither on friendship, nor substance . . . but only profit at any cost.
What starts as a small business profiting from contracts too marginal to be seized on by larger firms, quickly grows as the friends find ways to circumvent government regulations. Diveroli and Packouz plunge into war zones and international crime to make their business successful. The depth and danger of their situation is embodied in their encounters with legendary arms dealer Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper in a role ironically complementing his work in "American Sniper").
The film is loosely based on investigative reporter Guy Lawson's "Arms and the Dudes: How Three Stoners from Miami Beach Became the Most Unlikely Gunrunners in History," a Rolling Stone article later expanded to book length. The film's co-writer Stephen Chin added his own experiences including driving through war torn Iraq.
In the end, we are made to feel more concerned with the fate of the characters, lovable or not, than the suffering involved in the armed conflicts that their work made possible. Will Efraim and David live and be successful? Will they be caught, incarcerated or killed? In comparison to the carnage they help to inflict . . . who cares!
Phillips could have given his film a bit more meaning by showing us the results of the arms deals his characters were involved in. But instead, for all his presumably good or conflicted intentions, we have a work that is more bark than bite!