Delivering American University's news and views since 1925. | Thursday, January 18, 2018

“War Dogs”: Globe-trotting, gun-running fun with Jonah Hill and Miles Teller

Perhaps the best way to describe the spirit of “War Dogs” is through the high-pitched, slight, sly laugh of Jonah Hill (22 Jump Street), who plays cunning arms dealer Efraim Diveroli. The film, equal parts comedy and drama, strikes the right balance between making the viewer laugh and causing them to feel anxious for the fates of the protagonists. If the Taliban or an arms dealer on the terrorist watch list (played by Bradley Cooper) are not dangerous enough for Diveroli and his partner in gun running, their slippery partnership might eventually tear them apart.

“War Dogs” is a funny, tense, true-life tale about two Millennials who provide arms and ammunition to the U.S. military. These twentysomething arms dealers manage to obtain weapons while looking online for U.S. government contracts to supply the army, and then ensure the arms are delivered as promised, by any means. The movie’s title is derived from a term soldiers use to describe bottom-feeding arms dealers who make bank without ever stepping foot on the battlefield

“It was meant to be derogatory, but we kind of liked it,” says the character of David Packouz, Diveroli’s business partner, played in the film by rising star Miles Teller (Allegiant).

Teller portrays Packouz in a way that causes the viewer to empathize with him. Teller plays the lead character, an honest, likable person down on his luck. At the core of the story is a theme about being young and lost, and not knowing exactly what to do with one’s life, encompassing Packouz’s wandering lifestyle. He joins forces with Diveroli for purely financial reasons: to support himself and his pregnant girlfriend (Ana de Armas).

Contrasting with Teller’s empathic character, Hill’s portrayal of Diveroli elicits a range of emotions. Hill makes the viewer laugh, surprises them with his character’s hair-brained schemes, and frustrates the audience as he attempts to cover up his lies. Hill embodies this unstable character in a clever way, treading the line between charisma and duplicity. There’s a moment in the film where Packouz says, “The magic of Efraim is that he made you believe he was whoever you wanted him to be.” After seeing the film, it’s easy to see how apt that description is.

A virtuoso performance by Hill and great chemistry between both lead actors are the two constants that keep “War Dogs” flowing. Teller’s Packouz is the straight and smarter man, contrasting well with the unpredictable Diveroli. Teller also plays well off Hill in the more dramatic parts of the film, demonstrating the growing friction between the two principal characters.

“War Dogs” does a good job describing Packouz and Diveroli’s tenuous business partnership. However, if the film had spent more time focusing on the camaraderie these two found in running guns, and explained more about what spurred Diveroli to join the arms trade, the viewer would better understand the relationship between these two interesting characters.

Over the course of “War Dogs,” Packouz and Diveroli continue to climb the ladder of the arms trade. Packouz helps land a contract they call the “Beretta deal,” worth $60,000 with a U.S. army sergeant in Iraq. Packouz and Diveroli eventually accomplish the extraordinary feat of smuggling the handguns to their client, narrowly surviving a frantic drive to reach their destination in Iraq, a U.S. army-controlled bastion.

As Packouz and Diveroli rejoice in their arrival, they do so to the celebratory soundtrack of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s song “Fortunate Son.” This song is a fitting contrast for two slackers who risked their lives not for country, but for personal gain, and broke every rule in the book to get the Berettas to their target. As Diveroli says later in the film, “It’s not about being pro-war, it’s about being pro-money.”

After their successful gun run, Packouz and Diveroli go on to obtain a $300 million deal with the government to supply 100,000,000 rounds of ammunition that is intended to equip the Afghan military for years to come. This deal and the impending fallout from it become the central conflict of the film.

You wouldn’t expect “War Dogs” to be made by Todd Phillips, whose directing credits include a raunchy string of R-rated comedies, such as Old School and most notably, The Hangover. But in his fourteenth directorial effort, Phillips has made arguably his best film yet. Phillips has found the right balance between comedy and drama and presents a film that tells a compelling story, elevating itself above the typical R-rated film.

This is by no means an “intellectual” movie, but it engages the viewer with a story grounded in reality and humor.  If you are looking for a fun summer distraction, “War Dogs” fits the bill.

“War Dogs” opens in area theaters on August 19. Watch an interview with the stars and director here.

lversel@theeagleonline.com


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