War Dogs: a very entertaining, enjoyably dark comedy

On the face of it, War Dogs should be a bit rubbish, really. Two nice Jewish boys from Miami set themselves up as gun resellers to the US government, and find themselves in a little bit over their heads: an interesting setup, but one that has the potential to fall a little flat.

War Dogs

War Dogs

But Todd Phillips has managed to put together something much more entertaining, more engaging, than I had expected walking in. The story of David Packouz and Efraim Diveroli, played quite excellently by Miles Teller and Jonah Hill, is one of two young men who discover that all — all — of the purchases the US military need to make are offered, publicly, for tender on the Federal Business Opportunities website. And, the film being based on a true story, the site’s real, and still open for business.

Packouz is a massage therapist doing his best to keep his head above water; Diveroli is a chancer made, or at least making, good, Packouz’s old mate from school who runs into him at a mutual friend’s funeral and persuades him to partner up in the gun-reselling business. What ensues, then, is a quite pleasingly well-drawn caper as the two score bigger and bigger contracts that they increasingly struggle to fulfil, even as far as smuggling thousands of handguns into Iraq for the American army.

The story is quite straightforward — a good idea gets out of hand when people start to get a little overambitious, and on that level it works as a cautionary tale — but what really makes the film work is the central relationship between Packouz and Diveroli. Teller plays Packouz with honest innocence, even as the character is misleading his pregnant girlfriend Iz (Ana de Armas); Hill brings all manner of sleaze and manipulative lizardliness to Diveroli’s character. Packouz is, to a large extent, a foil for Diveroli, but that’s not to downplay his importance in the film — for every Eric Morecambe, you need an Ernie Wise who knows how to give the more obvious comic something to riff off, and Teller and Hill work remarkably well in War Dogs.

The humour in War Dogs is not limited solely to the interplay between the two leads It’s hard to play a film like this as a straight comedy, so Phillips goes quite dark, and the result is enjoyably effective — a musician, for example, credited, curiously, on IMDB as “David Packouz,” sings Don’t Fear The Reaper to a group of inmates at an old-folks’ home. Hill, in particular, clearly had enormous fun making this film, but manages to avoid crossing over into “the cast enjoyed it more than the audience will” territory. Also worth an honourable mention is Bradley Cooper, as Henry Girard, the legendary arms dealer who can no longer work directly with the American government and so hooks in Diveroli and Packouz as intermediaries. It’s a pleasingly slimy performance, charm with just a soupçon of evil, that helps make War Dogs a highly enjoyable film.

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