In “War Dogs,” the title epithet is a derogatory term for dishonest, bottom-feeding greed-monsters who profit from war by selling weapons to the Pentagon. The fact that the bros to whom the term is applied wear it as a badge of honor tells you a lot about them, and goes a long way toward explaining why “War Dogs” had an uphill battle that director Todd Phillips (“The Hangover”) was ill-equipped to win.
‘Tis based on a true story, adapted from a Rolling Stone article called “Arms and the Dudes” (they should have kept that title), about two twentysomething Florida stoners who came out of nowhere to become international arms dealers during Bush’s second term. Our narrator, and the one who still has vestiges of a conscience, is David Packouz (Miles Teller), who explains that he was restless and unfulfilled working as a massage therapist for $75 an hour when his troublemaking best friend from middle school, Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), moved back to Miami with a new scheme.
Efraim, a boisterous, tubby boor with an obnoxious laugh who we are supposed to believe is good at charming people, has been buying seized guns at government auctions and reselling them on the Internet. He has visions of expanding this practice, taking advantage of post-Halliburton rules requiring the Pentagon to let any and all contractors bid on jobs for outfitting our military in Iraq and Afghanistan. David comes along as a business partner, and a wealthy dry-cleaner (Kevin Pollak) invests start-up capital to help them get going.
What they’re doing is legal, though Efraim is intent on doing it illegally: cutting corners, falsifying documents, buying weapons from countries that America isn’t allowed to do business with. David, who naturally has a concerned and pregnant girlfriend at home (the reluctant criminal in these stories always has a concerned, pregnant girlfriend), lies to said girlfriend (played by Ana de Armas) about what he and Efraim are doing. The lies get bigger when, for example, a shipment of guns is held up at the Iraqi border and he and Efraim must fly to Jordan to smuggle them in themselves. Eventually, with the help of a shady arms dealer named Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper), they stumble into a massive, multi-million-dollar Pentagon contract involving a warehouse full of unused Albanian weapons.
Phillips, making his equivalent of Adam McKay’s “The Big Short” mixed with Michael Bay’s “Pain & Gain” (and hoping, wishing, praying it could be his equivalent of Scorsese’s “Wolf of Wall Street”), conveys the complicated story by regularly freeze-framing the action and having David narrate. It is therefore not hard to follow; if anything, it’s over-explained, told rather than shown. Co-writing with Stephen Chin and Jason Smilovic (“Lucky Number Slevin”), Phillips wants the story to be one of those fascinating, so-crazy-it-must-be-true capers, but as it unfolds, we realize that apart from a few choice moments, the events really aren’t outrageous enough to justify the detailed, step-by-step retelling. A couple of “Scarface”-worshipping dudes got in over their heads while bilking the government. So?
Nor is the movie sufficiently amusing to compensate for the awfulness of its main characters. Efraim is the quintessential ugly American, even using that term to describe himself before referring to a foreign language as “gibberish.” He has no scruples, not even when dealing with friends, and he prides himself on his ability to lie, cheat, and swindle. Yet his caustic vulgarity isn’t funny enough to make him a “love to hate” figure. David is less despicable as a human being, but the film still lets him off easy by positioning him as the “moral compass.” (This was one of the problems with “Pain & Gain,” too: the characters are 8’s or 9’s on a 1-10 scale of loathsomeness, but the movie thinks they’re only 6’s.)
It isn’t a total bust; Phillips and the actors are competent, and there are standalone instances of sharp comedy. There are also 75,000,000 uses of the word “bro.” When telling a story about repugnant people who are motivated by nothing but naked greed, it’s tough to find a tone that will make them palatable as entertainment, whether as figures of scorn, mockery, pity, or amusement. Phillips doesn’t have the finesse to manage it.
C (1 hr., 54 min.; )