REVIEW WRITTEN BY MARK MESZOROS
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War may indeed be hell, but watching a couple of young guys exploit war for profit is rather enjoyable.
At least, it is in “War Dogs,” a comedy-laden drama from Todd Phillips, director of “The Hangover” trilogy, doing his best work since 2009’s series launcher.
Based on a true story — documented in a 2011 Rolling Stone article — “War Dogs” stars Jonah Hill and MIles Teller as Efraim Diveroli and David Packouz, respectively, who made use of a little-known government initiative that allowed smaller companies to bid on U.S. Military contracts. The pair of 20-somethings whose friendship dates to their school days at an Orthodox synagogue in Miami Beach, Florida, where, according to the article, the younger Divoli was the overweight class clown “with a big mouth and no sense of fear.”
That pretty much sums up Hill’s portrayal of Efraim, the actor appearing very heavy in the film and carrying the volume load, to be sure. The performance goes a long way to make us forget that Teller often plays the jerk in films; by comparison, at least, David is a good guy.
We meet David as being held at gunpoint, a hint that the gents’ journey will not always be smooth. We then go back to the beginning, when David is struggling to make it as a masseuse following the loss of other jobs and a falling out with his parents.
Though his narration, he also tells us that a soldier deployed in the Middle East — the story of “War Dogs” takes place during the presidency of George W. Bush — carries around about $17,500 work of gear.
“And that’s what war’s really about — war is an economy,” he says. “Anyone who tells you otherwise is either in on it or stupid. I didn’t know any of this back then.”
He soon would, reconnecting with Efraim at a funeral. Efraim is already making money selling weapons to the military, and he shows David a constantly updated website that lists contracts up for bid, big and small.
“Everybody is ignoring the crumbs,” Efraim tells David. “But I live on the crumbs. I’m a rat.”
And, he points out, the crumbs can be worth millions.
David is reluctant to accept Efraim’s offer to become a partner in the business, as both he and his beautiful young wife, Iz (Ana de Armas of “Knock Knock”) are against the war.
“This isn’t about being pro-war,” Efraim assures him. “The war’s happening. This is about being pro-money.”
Join Efraim David does, of course, and he hides it from Ana, telling her his newfound money is coming from selling bed sheets to the government.
David has a gift for the business, and soon the pair are landing bigger contracts. However, when they make a mistake filling one — a goof that could get them blackballed — they travel to Iraq to fix things, risking their lives.
Throughout all of this, “War Dogs” — written by Stephen Chin, Jason Smilovic and Phillips — manages to be consistently funny. As the director, Phillips infuses the goings-on with plenty of energy and keeps things relatively light and quite brisk.
Things gradually get less funny — appropriately so — as the guys’ since-grown company goes after a contract that will be worth hundreds of millions. As told in “War Dogs,” it is a venture that will see the pair cutting corners and test their friendship, as Efraim becomes increasingly greedy.
“War Dogs” makes a few references to 1983’s “Scarface” — fitting given the Miami setting — and even plays off it in its promotional poster. It also brings to mind 2013’s “The Wolf of Wall Street,” in which Hill plays a supporting role; here, he basically takes on the Leonardo DiCaprio role of the Big Greedy.
Hill is big, brash and fun in “War Dogs.” He’ll make you thrilled you never went into business or even become pals with Diveroli.
Teller (“Whiplash,” the “Divergent” movies), meanwhile is a steady presence. He succeeds at making you like David even as he makes one shady decision after another, even if it’s just to go along with what his partner wants to do. Even as Iz grows tired of his secrets, you’ll root for her to give the guy a break.
Bradley Cooper, one of Phillips’ “Hangover” regulars, shows up as Henry Girard, a murky figure who is not allowed to do business with the U.S. directly and helps Efraim and David put together their $300 million bid for what becomes known as “the Afghan deal.” While he’s been better, Cooper gives “War Dogs” a bit of an extra punch when it needs it.
“War Dogs” does lose a bit of steam as it treads on. Plus, you can’t help but wonder if it’s painting David too much of an angel. (And could Diveroli really have made such shortsighted and greedy decisions? REALLY? Well, maybe. People can be insane.)
“War Dogs” is a decent-sized firecracker arriving at the end of a season that really needed one. It has a few flaws, but manages to remind us that war is serious business — and does so in a highly entertaining way.