Monday 22 August 2016

Movie Review: War Dogs (2016)

A dramatic comedy, War Dogs is an unapologetic story of young men profiteering from the business of weapons trading. Brash and vivid, the film passes no judgment: this is digital capitalism as applied to the often hypocritical enterprise of feeding the global death machine.

It's the mid-2000s in Miami. David Packouz (Miles Teller) is a pot-smoking college dropout, making ends meet as a massage therapist serving creepy rich men. David tries his hand at selling high quality bed sheets to retirement homes, and nearly bankrupts himself, just as he discovers that girlfriend Iz (Ana de Armas) is pregnant. Fortunately, David's high school friend Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) has just moved back to Miami. A fearless, quick-witted entrepreneur, Efraim is dabbling in low-level arms trading as a middle man bidding on official US Army requisitions through a public procurement website.

Efraim is good at what he does and asks David to join his fledgling company AEY Inc, an offer David accepts although he lies to Iz about his sojourn into the arms trading business.  AEY lands an order to supply handguns to the Army in Iraq, but when the shipment is held up in Jordan, the two friends have to personally intervene, resulting in a harrowing war zone experience. Higher stakes opportunities lie ahead, as AEY goes after a mammoth contract to supply the Afghanistan Army. Efraim and David partner with shady international arms dealer Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper), and find themselves in an Albania warehouse where Cold War surplus equipment can be translated into huge profits.

Based on real events chronicled in a Rolling Stone feature article and directed by Todd Phillips, War Dogs picks up the theme and style developed by The Wolf Of Wall Street and The Big Short: young men behaving badly and finding extreme riches in surreal yet factual environments. And War Dogs polishes the formula to a shine, mixing millennial brohood comedy, the ugly yet fearless American prototype, and deadly serious world events into a potent mix. Propelled by an excellent thumping soundtrack featuring plenty of 1970s and '80s rock, the result is a tight dramatic comedy with plenty of punch.

At just under two hours the film contains no flab. Phillips uses the first 30 minutes to draw in the characters of David and Efraim, and they are a classic opposites-attract duo. David is more timid, struggling to find his place in life and reduced to half-baked business ventures doomed to both cause embarrassment and financial failure. Efraim is brash, big, and ridiculously confident, finding opportunities, swinging for the fences and easily able to cast aside the horror of a bad war in search of the capitalist dream. While David frets about profiting from a war he and Iz do not support, Efraim has no such qualms: the war is happening anyway, the weapons have to be sold, and the profit is there to be made.

The heart of the film is then dedicated to the seemingly bizarre world of modern weapons bought and sold to feed war's voracious appetite. It's a wild west but real market where young men can make money by sitting in nondescript offices and clicking their way into the world of go-betweens, connecting idle weapons with active war zones. Phillips captures the anticipation, excitement, and frenzy of dealmaking, with David's character providing engaging narration to fill in the gaps. And when deals go bad and on-the-ground sojourns are needed, War Dogs soars, first to the chaotic Iraq theatre and then onto Albania, a forgotten Cold War front line now waiting to translate ancient surplus hardware into cold hard cash.

The interaction between David and Efraim is maintained at the heart of the film, Phillips guiding the two protagonists through phases of a friendship that morphs into a hazardous business relationship, ultimately revealing some painful true colours. Jonah Hill easily occupies the eye of the storm, giving Efraim a force of nature personality, deploying the same obtuse behaviour whether in glitzy Miami bars or in the world's worst hell holes. The story is told through David's eyes, and Miles Teller delivers a circumspect performance, David's dilemmas shaped by burgeoning family responsibilities both pushing him towards money-making opportunities and pulling him to question his motives.

War Dogs is absurdly serious, the business of war translated into a wild adventure where extreme riches dance with death.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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