It’s hard not to wax reflexive about this Trumped-up election year and what it says about the state of our union when Todd Phillips, director of The Hangover films, suddenly fancies himself the next Oliver Stone. And one of the most depressing things about War Dogs, a film self-consciously living in the shadows of Brian De Palma’s Scarface, and one that gets every one of its political cues wrong, isn’t that Phillips is out of his league from the start, but rather that our nation’s collective race to the bottom now almost justifies stupidity of this magnitude as a legitimate film of the moment.
Based on the true-life exploits of Efraim Diveroli and David Packouz, small-fry arms dealers who sleazed their way into some embarrassingly big Pentagon contracts, War Dogs frequently mimics the mojo of The Wolf of Wall Street, but lacks even that problematic film’s sense of duality. Whereas Martin Scorsese’s film was both infatuated with and corrupted by Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort, Phillips offers no perspective deeper than Jonah Hill’s mercenary Diveroli, embracing his scorn without offering context.
Packouz starts the film out as a masseur servicing leering rich dudes along the Miami beachfront, ultimately deciding to launch into his own business selling wholesale Egyptian cotton bed sheets to nursing homes and getting repeatedly turned down by lisping administrators. Yes, Phillips’s auteur signature is impressively secured right off the bat when he manages to shoehorn not just one, but two gay-baiting stereotypes within the exposition.
Packouz’s prospects are given life at a funeral when Diveroli, his former grade school bestie, makes a tardy cameo to pay respects. It doesn’t take much grease for the latter to rope the former into his, up to that point, single-man operation, trolling prospective U.S. defense-artillery needs. Diveroli’s strategy is to prowl the “crumbs,” or the orders too small to attract any other arms dealers. And in the opening years of Dubya’s second term, they’re not scarce.
War Dogs is unrepentantly cynical when it comes to the global business of warmongering, but proves unsurprisingly earnest when it comes to the lure of the American dream. Though the pair are doing just fine banking hundreds of thousands, a chance Vegas encounter with a terrorist-watchlisted munitions trader (Bradley Cooper) puts Looney Tunes dollar signs in their eyes. It’s at this point that Phillips’s ongoing reliance on mortification takes over. The Hangover films exploited it for laughs, and War Dogs does it for what it thinks is tragedy, but really just plays like a comedy without any punchlines.